Divided Heaven (Der geteilte Himmel, 1964).
Directed by Konrad Wolf
Distributed in the U.S. by First Run Features
www.firstrunfeatures.com; 109 minutes
Stars (Sterne/Zvezdy, 1959)
Directed by Konrad Wolf
Distributed in the U.S. by DEFA Film Library
University of Massachusetts Amherst; www.umass.edu/defa; 88 minutes
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 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 all dominate the visual grammar of the film. Against the narrative of the love story, these marks of industrialism infer a meta-narrative of the post-bourgeois social order, where a trite love story, "banal" as Rita refers to it in her opening narrative, can only be ennobled, even altogether be worth telling, only insofar as it plays against the grander narrative of the progressive history of labor and society.
If there was a coup that assured its place in the canon of German cinema it was the casting of Renate Blume as Rita. Her presence and ownership of the role is as powerful and affecting as any performance by West German stars such as Romy Schneider or Hanna Schygulla, making Rita one of the most significant female protagonists of postwar German cinema. Blume's Rita embodies and projects what Konrad Wolf recounted in 1964 notes on the production, the attempt of the film to "represent realty on two levels, namely on the level of intellectual comprehension and on the level of immediate experience" (translation: Berghahn).
We encounter likewise a similarly moving female protagonist in the second film under discussion. A milestone in post-war German cinema, DEFA's Stars, a Bulgarian co-production, was the film that first brought recognition to the new socialist cinemas of both the German Democratic Republic and Bulgaria, reaping the Special Grand Jury Prize at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival. Not too long ago it was a film more often referenced than seen and its current availability should be taken advantage of by anyone interested in either postwar German cinema or Holocaust film studies.
Stars is one of the first films from any country to contend with the deportation and eventual destruction of European Jews by the conquering Nazi state. Despite the passing of over half a century since it's production, as well as the many subsequent films drawing on similar subject matter, Stars remains a remarkable work in the catalogue of Holocaust film, not least for its multi-dimensional characters with whom screenwriter Angel Wagenstein and director Konrad Wolf endow palpable dignity. Indeed, as inferred above, Sasha Krusharsha's portrayal of Ruth, the doomed Greek-Jewish deportee in Bulgaria with whom Walter (Jurgen Frohriep), a German soldier, falls in love but is unable to save, is as penetrating, affecting and luminous on screen as Blume's Rita. In both films it is the emotional qualities captured in the female leads that contribute most decisively to the filmic sublimity of the two works and render them "classic" status.
Though there have been many other films more visceral in their depictions of Nazi brutality, few have emphasized in language and music such heartrending detail of the distinctive cultural milieu of the victims. The Greek Jews portrayed speak Greek with their children, Ladino, a Sephardic language, among themselves, Bulgarian and German when capable when necessary. The film begins and ends with the deportation trains leaving the station for Auschwitz as Yiddish melodies of Polish Jewry (the land of the camps) are heard.
The extras included on the Stars DVD are especially important since there is little discussion of the film available in English, perhaps due to its previously sparse viewing opportunities. Most welcome is a Thomas Elsaesser essay "'Rescued in Vain': Parapraxis and Deferred Action in Konrad Wolf's Stars", what I believe to be the most accomplished treatment of the film in English and to be published as part of a forthcoming book by the author. Also there is a useful timeline of the Holocaust in Bulgaria as well as a fascinating interview with screenwriter Angel Wagenstein.
There is also a preview for Andrea Simon's forthcoming documentary Angel Wagenstein: Art is a Weapon which, based on the interview included on the DVD, should be a celebrated event for scholars of the East Block as well as the Jewish experience in 20th century Europe.
St. Francis College
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|Publication:||Film & History|
|Article Type:||Video recording review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2012|
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