Along tracks in a train car factory in Halle, East Germany, Rita Seidel collapses; youth hasn’t protected her from nervous exhaustion. The image of her in a hospital bed launches flashbacks; are they hers, or do they appear without her intervention or participation, as though she is divided from her own experience? (Discontinuous, the voiceover is certainly “divided” from itself.) We learn that Rita is divided from her lover, a chemist, who fled to West Germany after a professional stymieing, and from her own former idealistic outlook, which had been willing to give Communism a go. (Manfred is nearly a decade older than Rita.) And the Berlin Wall has since gone up, dividing Germany itself. The action of Der geteilte Himmel, which Christa Wolf, the author of the novel, helped adapt and Konrad Wolf (no relation) directed, takes place at the end of the fifties and the beginning of the sixties. (East Germany built the Wall in 1961.) It is an accomplished, politically dense film that is, ultimately, schematic and, by design, enormously depressing.
The film is in black and white that emphasizes the part of the spectrum covering light gray to white. Normally, color films are much harder on the eyes than black-and-white ones; but the filmmaker and Werner Bergmann, his cinematographer, have collaborated on a kind of optical torture of their own. Almost everything, and certainly everything outdoors, is rendered artfully indistinct, as though we are viewing it through a veil of silt. The German Democratic Republic is visually cast as a dry and arid place.
Renate Blume plays Rita with sufficient appeal to attract sympathy; her attempting suicide, as she does in the book, would have resulted in a heaviness that the film, which is mostly delicate, could ill support. A good deal of care has gone into the film’s mood and design; but, for me, this is one film of Konrad Wolf’s that only rarely comes to any sort of life.
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