Another Teutonic act of queasy self-analysis, Konrad Wolf’s “Divided Heaven” (1964) is something like the “Rebel Without a Cause” of Cold War-crazed East Germany, made during a cultural thaw that oddly coincided with the erection of the Berlin Wall.
It’s a New Wavey romance, a tale of young lovers trying to find happiness under Communism, but as much as it feels robustly Truffautian (especially all those rooftop shots of the Berlin streets and sidewalks), it’s not gritty but spiffy, polished and visually rich, almost the GDR version of “The Cranes Are Flying.”
The new, severing vibrations of The Wall, barely mentioned and never seen, haunts the action, which is often overtaken with factory politics, union vs. management vs. worker, and witchhunting at university, where a co-ed’s parents jumping ship to the West is enough to get her expelled and painted as a lackey of imperialism.
As Rita, the passive factory girl who links up with a cranky chemical engineer and scion of her factory’s management (Eberhard Esche), Renate Blume is one of those movie faces that changes depending on how you look at her, reedy Natalie Wood maiden one minute, doe-eyed Juliette Binoche lost girl the next. Wide-eyed and sympathetic, she’s a classic foil for the story’s social tensions, which eventually carry the couple over the Wall and into the intimidating freedom of the West.
Still, the loveliest thing about Wolf’s movie is its generational vibe — the era’s requisite youthful fire is in great supply, but this was also when movies discovered that sometimes, people just hung out, and young people in love hang out a lot — as well as its meaning for Germans of a particular age, then and now. (In 1994, it was voted the 57th most important German film of all time in a survey of filmmakers and critics, above Wenders’ “Wings of Desire” and films by Herzog, Dreyer and Pabst.)
It always fascinates me — if not everyone else, I know — to discover films that have been epochal touchstones in the lives of entire filmgoing publics and yet have remained more or less unknown to us in the English-speaking, supposedly tastemaking West.
To an entire slice of postwar Northern Europeans, “Rebel Without a Cause” (or pick your anthem film) could be “the American ‘Divided Heaven,'” not the other way around.