Hans Fallada

Genres - Drama, Romance

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Biography by Bruce Eder

Hans Fallada was one of Germany's most acclaimed novelists of the post-WWI period, with a readership rivaling those of Erich Maria Remarque and Thomas Mann. One of the very few pre-Nazi authors to survive within Germany during the Hitler era, Fallada led a unique and singular -- albeit often troubled -- career and life. He was born Wilhelm Friedrich Rudolph Ditzen in Geifswald, Pomerania, in 1894, and was the son of a noted lawyer and judge. Fallada grew up in Berlin and in Leipzig, and led what he freely admitted to be a less-than-ideal early life. He was a moody, often sickly boy, who loved literature and fairy tales (the name Fallada came from a magical horse in one of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales) and hated living in the city. He also had emotional problems that grew worse as he got older, and manifested themselves with tragic consequences. In 1909, he killed a friend in a duel and was confined to an asylum after he attempted suicide during the investigation. He tried to enlist in the army in 1914 and was found unsuited for service. When Fallada wasn't absorbed in books, he preferred the company of animals to people, and always chose life in the country when he could afford the choice. He never completed school, but was a natural writer, and in 1920 began getting his books published.

Fallada's first novel, Der Junge Goedeschal, was a modest success, but his second book, Anton and Gerda, was a total failure (although in later years it came to be regarded as one of his best novels). In the wake of that disaster, he endured six years of inability to write, and lived as a beggar for much of that time. He came to embrace socialism as a political ideal, became a habitual drug user, and was jailed twice for crimes committed to finance his habit. Fallada's life and luck changed in the late '20s when he met and married Anna Margarete Issel, settling down to a more normal, respectable life in the town of Holstein. He eventually moved back to Berlin, where he began writing again, at first as a journalist, and in 1931, he enjoyed his first critical and financial success as an author with Bauern, Bonzen und Bomben (Farmers, Politics, and Bombs), which garnered good reviews and significant sales both in and outside of Germany.

Fallada soon found himself identified as one of the leaders of a new literary movement toward realism and away from the dominant expressionist style of the 1920s. The following year, he published his magnum opus, Kleiner Mann, Was Nun?, published in English as Little Man, What Now? A beautiful and sensitively written account of a humble young man and his wife, and their efforts to survive amid the poverty of post-World War I Germany, it took the world by storm. The novel was praised by Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse, and the public embraced it in lockstep, so that the novel ran through 45 printings in Germany in its first year of publication. It was filmed in Germany in 1933 by director Fritz Wendhausen and published that same year in 11 other languages, including English, and was one of the most widely read German novels in the United States, becoming a Book of the Month Club selection and a bestseller. Universal Pictures licensed the film rights, and, with Frank Borzage directing and Douglass Montgomery and Margaret Sullavan starring, turned Fallada's beautifully wrought literary realism into one of the best dramas ever made by the studio. By the time Universal's movie had been released in 1934, the Hitler government was in power in Germany. What might have been the beginning of an ongoing relationship between Fallada and Universal -- owned by the Jewish Laemmle family, which was busy in those years rescuing dozens, and then hundreds, of actual and supposed relatives from the threat of the Nazis -- was never to be.

Unlike most of the prominent German authors of the period, who went into exile, Fallada remained in Germany and -- despite his identification with socialist causes and ideology -- managed to live quietly in the small village of Carwitz, separated from any direct connection to politics and mostly undisturbed by the government. His books continued to appear regularly in English-language editions, including The World Outside (1934), Once We Had a Child (1935), An Old Heart a-Journeying (1936), Sparrow Farm (1937), and Wolf Among Wolves (1938). Despite some personal and medical problems and a worsening relationship with his first wife (which led to their subsequent divorce), Fallada continued writing regularly into the early '40s. One of his books, Iron Gustav (1938), was reportedly highly regarded by the Hitler regime, a fact that came back to haunt Fallada after the Allied victory. The book was banned by the Berlin City Government in 1945 as Nazi propaganda, but the validity of that ban was later disputed by the central military authorities, and Fallada was encouraged to resume writing immediately upon the installation of the first postwar government. (His work had come to a halt from 1943-1944, amid his remarriage to Ursula Losch and his hospitalization for alcoholism.) Fallada's status in post-World War II Berlin was complicated, however, by the fact that his early affinity for socialism had led him to settle in the eastern (i.e., Soviet-controlled) sector of the city. The invitation from the post-Nazi government gave him an opening to resume work, and in 1946, he published the novel The Alpdruck. He was hospitalized again late that year and died in early 1947, at age 53, from an overdose of morphine while preparing the publication of a new book. Entitled Every Man Dies Alone, the novel was set during the Hitler era and dealt with a married couple's destruction at the hands of the Gestapo.

In the years following Fallada's death, a small handful of novels were published posthumously, and in the decades since, his work has passed in and out of print, in Germany and the United States. Little Man, What Now? remains his best-known novel in America and the Universal film is now regarded as a compelling artifact of German life on the eve of Hitler's rise to power (despite its having been made in Hollywood). In Germany, Fallada's audience is wider and remains substantial, encompassing generations of fans for most of his novels and one classic children's book, Geschichten aus der Murkelei (1938). Beginning in the 1960s, his novels -- starting with Jeder Stirbt Für Sich Allein in 1962 -- began getting adapted into dramas on German television. The Fallada works brought to the small screen in Germany during the decades since, as made-for-television films or miniseries, include Wolf Unter Wölfen in (1964), Bauern, Bonzen und Bomben in (1973), and Der Trinker (1995).