East Germany’s history is surprising, paradoxical, and weird. Just when you thought things were going to to lapse into a bleak recreation of 1984, the government would make a U-turn on some policy and relax the rules. Nowhere is this more evident than in the film community, where periods of creative freedom were followed by vicious clamp downs, and vice versa. The most pronounced example of this shift happened right after the Berlin Wall was erected. Touted as an “anti-fascist protective barrier,” authorities in the GDR were eager to demonstrate that the wall would help their country blossom by keeping out the insidious influences of American capitalists and West German Altnazis. Filmmakers and writers were granted a level of freedom of expression they had not seen before. It was during the first few years after the wall went up that some of the best books and films that the GDR had to offer were made. Meanwhile on the other side of the wall, West German films had gotten so banal that a group of young filmmakers at the International Short Film Festival in Oberhausen delivered their famous Oberhausen Manifesto, declaring that the “Old film is dead. We believe in the new” (Der alte Film ist tot. Wir glauben an den neuen).
One person who would take full advantage of this renaissance was a talented writer named Christa Wolf. Ms. Wolf’s first book, The Divided Heaven (Der geteilte Himmel) was an immediate hit on both sides of the Wall. Shortly after its publication, filmmaker Konrad Wolf (no relation) decided to make a movie of it. Ms. Wolf and her husband Gerhard were hired to write the screenplay, along with Kurt Barthel, a poet and author who had already demonstrated a talent for screenwriting with the scripts for Kurt Maetzig’s Castles and Cottages and Don’t Forget My Little Traudel under his pseudonym, KuBa.
The film follows the book closely. A young woman named Rita Seidel is shown staggering along the train tracks in a railroad car factory in Halle when she suddenly collapses. The rest of the film is told in flashback, relating the story of her love affair with Manfred Herrfurth, an ambitious young chemist. Manfred is a cynical young man whose personal ambition is in direct odds with socialist ideology. Rita, on the other hand, remains positive, and wants her work to benefit the community, not just her own ego. Most of the action takes place in the months prior to the construction of the Berlin Wall. Disgusted with the initial rejection of his new chemical process, Manfred moves to West Berlin. Rita goes to join him but finds the rampant consumerism, endless street noise, and the interpersonal alienation too much to bear. Accepting that she and Manfred live in different worlds, she returns to Halle where she collapses on the job (in the book, her collapse is due to an attempted suicide, in the movie, it seems to be simply her sadness overwhelming her nervous system).
What makes this film (and the book) so unique is the even-handed way in which it deals with both sides of the divided country. While its heart is admittedly closer to the socialist side of the things, the film does a good job of making us understand Manfred’s frustration with a system that is sometimes its own worst enemy. The portrayal of the work brigade in this film is similar to that in Frank Beyer’s film, Trace of Stones, which came out after the 11th Plenum and faced heavy criticism in spite of the fact that the book it was based on was already a best seller in East Germany.
As with some other Konrad Wolf films (e.g., Stars, Sun Seekers, Solo Sunny), the lead is played by a relatively unknown actress. Here it is Renate Blume, who was still in drama school when she got the part. After graduating in 1965, she started working primarily in theater and later as part of the East German television (DFF) ensemble. From 1965 to 1974, she was married to director Frank Beyer, but worked with him on only one project: the TV mini-series, Die sieben Affären der Doña Juanita (The Seven Affairs of Doña Juanita). After divorcing Beyer, she lived with the popular Indianerfilme actor, Gojko Mitic, whom she met while working on Apaches. In 1976, while working on Kit & Co, she met the American actor, Dean Reed, and fell in love. The were married in 1981, and Ms. Blume stayed with Reed until his death by suicide in 1986 (for more about Dean Reed, see Blood Brothers). As with many other East German actors, she found it hard at first to get film work in the newly unified Germany and began teaching classes in acting and appearing on stage. After a few guest roles on popular German TV shows (e.g., Tatort, Edel & Starck), she was hired to play Ingrid Lindbergh on the series, Fünf Sterne (Five Stars). which ran from 2005 to 2008 on NDF.
The cinematographer was Werner Bergmann, whom Wolf used for all but his last two films. As with other DEFA films from this period, the camerawork is stunning. Armed with the newer lighter cameras, and inspired by the work of the French New Wave, the filmmakers in East Germany were pushing the boundaries of filmmaking with each new project. One of the most startlingly photographed scenes occurs when a group of scientists are sitting around a coffee table, chatting. The camera continuously circles them while they speak. Ten years later, West German cinematographer Michael Ballhaus would be lauded for inventing this same sort of shot in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s TV-movie, Martha. From the very first time we see Rita and Manfred together, we notice that there is often a dividing element occupying the space between them. Sometimes it is a lamp pole, and other times it is a window frame or a railing. These act as subtle clues to the division facing the lovers, at first, ideological and after the wall, physical.
Helga Krause’s editing in this film is flawless. It seems to be intentionally following the jazzy rhythms of Hans-Dieter Hosalla’s score. The counterpoint between these two elements is exhilarating. Scenes jump from melancholy music to voice-overs to complete silence in startling and imaginative ways.
Also worth of mention is Konrad Walle’s sound work. Since film is primarily a visual medium, it is all to easy to overlook the sound mixing, but sound in this film, is as important as the images. At times it is remarkably subtle, such as the muted whir if a tape recorder rewinding in the background, or the dissonant banging on an organ that is meant to imitate car horns. Sometimes it is in your face, like the recreated broadcasts of Yuri Gagarin’s flight into space.
Christa Wolf is now regarded as one of Germany’s foremost authors. Her novel, Cassandra, is considered a classic of feminist literature and has been translated into nearly every major language. After her Stasi files were released to the public, it was revealed that Ms. Wolf had worked briefly an informer for the Stasi in 1959, but her benign reports led them to believe that she wasn’t really cooperating with them and they let her go, choosing instead to spy on her for the next thirty years. In 1976, she was one of the many signatories to the letter of protest against the expatriation of Wolf Biermann. An action that got her banned from the East German Writers’ Union (Deutscher Schriftstellerverband). Sadly, Ms. Wolf died December 1, 2011 in Berlin while I was writing this blog entry.
Divided Heaven was one of the last films to take full advantage of the new creative freedom the wall afforded. A year after its release, the 11th Plenum of the SED would put and end to this brief but shining period in East German film history, blaming the media for the country’s economic problems and banning wholesale an entire years worth of films. After that, any film with even the slightest criticism of the way things were was seen as a threat to the system. Christa Wolf’s next film project was made with Kurt Barthel, whom she met while working on Divided Heaven. That film, Fräulein Schmetterling (Miss Butterfly), was banned before it was finished and relegated to the storage facility at DEFA. After the Wende, nearly all the footage was found, but much of the soundtrack was missing. Although it already had been shown on both sides of the wall, Divided Heaven also found itself banned from time to time throughout the rest of the GDR’s existence, but remains as one of the best films that DEFA ever made.