- Divided Heaven (Der geteilte Himmel), and: Stars (Sterne/Zvezdy)
Two films released in the past year from the DEFA Film Library at UMass Amherst merit particular attention from film enthusiasts as they represent two high points of the DEFA catalogue. Divided Heaven and Stars (both directed by the highly acclaimed director Konrad Wolf) are unique early films of post-war socialist cinema. Both films signified important developments in East German cinema as it became competitive on the international film circuit.
In each East Germany confronts the destructiveness of recent history as it grapples with a new national identity.
Divided Heaven is such a beautiful film with such appealing characters and empathetic and tender portrayals of romantic conflict it is easy to forget that it was produced just three years after the construction of the Berlin Wall. Based on Christa Wolf’s breakthrough novel published in 1963, it quickly became one of the most celebrated German novels of the post-war era and as an exemplar for quality writing from the GDR that is both representative of its unique politics and dramatically accessible. To this day, as the GDR fades [End Page 59] further into the past, the novel continues to enjoy a place on reading lists for students of German literature. Its enduring international appeal, one can figure, lies not in the de rigueur socialist polemic (which would have been necessary for any work to make it to the presses, never mind past the border, in those days) but in the availability of a first person narrative of an young, astute woman in the GDR and, perhaps more so, the popular appeal of the domestic and melodramatic elements of the romance, conventional though it may be.
Surely it was this last point that inspired the swift filmization of the novel. Barely a year elapsed between the release of Christa Wolf’s bestseller and the Konrad Wolf’s film, for which the author was credited as co-screenwriter. The film remained essentially true to the novel; a doomed love affair consequent of a divided Germany.
Although never referenced or shown, the politics of the Berlin Wall dominate Divided Heaven. While the hostile and divided post-war Germany had a partitioned Berlin as its setting for propaganda wars in several earlier DEFA films, the construction of the Wall in 1961 unambiguously underscored the respective “otherness” perceived amid the two states. By the time of this 1964 film, the Wall had fundamentally transformed the intra-cultural conflict between the two competing German ideologies. The East German socialist interpretation of the Wall signified a transition, both literally and figuratively, from the building period of a socialist society to its preservation against capitalist corruption. The wall stood, notes Daniela Berghan in her study Hollywood behind the Wall: The cinema of East Germany, as an “antifaschistischer Schutzwall” (anti-fascist protection rampart). Conversely, from the Western point of view, the Wall was a desperate and provocative manifestation of Soviet and East German policies of censorship and imprisonment. Between 1949 and 1961 2.6 million people fled the GDR leaving it with a deficit of young talent essential to build the socialist state. Divided Heaven eschews the physical presence of the Wall, making it weirdly absent in the landscape of early 60s Berlin. Thus, despite the claims of East German authorities, DEFA censors must have conceded the Wall ultimately as a symbol of defeat, a visible sign of the desperation of a regime trying to stem the tide of its fleeing human resources.
Instead, the film asks the audience to appreciate the psychological divisions and conflicts in its characters as explanation and, ultimately, justification for the politics of the Wall. This is particularly noteworthy given the naturalistic visual style the director employs in the film. Lingering shots of industrial cityscapes, smokestacks spilling grime into the air, sober factory entrances, the sounds of industry...