Divided Heaven

In an effort to round out my required credits, I am currently taking a college course devoted to German cinema during the Cold War. There is one film that I saw recently that I found particularly interesting. It is called Divided Heaven (1964). It was made in East Germany and was directed by Konrad Wolf, based on a novel by Christa Wolf. It tells the story of a young woman, Rita (Renate Blume), who falls in love with Manfred (Eberhard Esche), an ambitious chemist. Rita spends part of her time attending a training institute for teachers and part of her time working at a factory that makes train cars. Manfred gradually becomes frustrated with the reluctance of authorities to adopt a new process he has developed for making dyes. He leaves for the West. Rita soon follows. She eventually becomes disenchanted with what she regards as the aimlessness of life in the West; she misses the sense of purpose she had in the East. She reluctantly decides to leave Manfred and return to the East.

One of the things I found most interesting about Divided Heaven was the portrayal of the factory workers. It quickly becomes clear that there are tensions between individuals: resentments, rivalries, petty jealousies. There are suspicions that the foreman, Meternagel (Hans Hardt-Hardtloff) is too eager to please management, and one of the workers, Wendland (Hilmar Thate) is regarded as a loud-mouth and a show-off. This is very different from the standard Stalinist portrayal of heroic workers selflessly devoting themselves to the cause of socialism. Another way in which the film departs from Stalinist “art” is that it doesn’t take a worshipful view of the Communist Party. For example, Manfred is contemptuous of his father, who was a Nazi during the Second World War, but joined the CP afterwards. (When Manfred departs for the West, his parents regard this as a good career move.)

In the scenes at the teachers’ institute, problems are caused by a student, Mangold (Uwe Detlef Jessen), who is a self-appointed enforcer of political orthodoxy. He tries to have a student expelled simply because she concealed that fact that her father had fled to the West. It takes an impassioned intervention by the institute’s director, Schwarzenbach (Günther Grabbert) to defeat his witch-hunt. Interestingly, political orthodoxy is not an issue for the factory workers. Perhaps because of the concrete nature of their work, it is simply impossible for them to concern themselves with ideological nit-picking. They are more concerned with practical questions, such as how much labor is reasonable to expect of people in a single day. The students at the institute, on the other hand, perhaps because of the more abstract nature of their concerns, are sometimes prone to drift into dogmatism and phrase-mongering.

Divided Heaven provides a sharp contrast to the cartoonish depiction of East Germany in another film I saw for this course, One, Two, Three (1961), an American film made in Germany , in which East Germans are shown marching around with signs saying “Yankee Go Home”. From what what I’ve read about this film it appears that, at the time of its release, critics thought this was brilliant satire.

I found Divided Heaven a bit hard to follow at times. The film jumps back and forth in time, and the characters are constantly referring to events in the distant past. (The voice-over narration doesn’t help much.) The fogginess of this film might at least be partly due to the fact that five different people worked on the screenplay. Nevertheless, Divided Heaven provides an interesting glimpse into that strange and evanescent place known as East Germany.

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