An Autopsy of the GDR: Armin Petras’ Divided Heaven

by Joseph Pearson

28 December 2014

I am looking for an unmarked door, and walk through a succession of hushed industrial yards – through one window I see a man welding, through another a carpenter sawing a board. I half expect to see train cars in production. But instead, two sexy men in black wearing skinny jeans catch my eye. They are smoking and mouthing words silently to themselves. Yes, I’m in the right place: the Schaubühne’s practice stage, to visit a rehearsal of »Divided Heaven«, based on Christa Wolf’s 1963 novel of the same name.

I am meeting Armin Petras, who will direct the Schaubühne’s first-ever (!) analysis of the divided Germany, well timed to the 25th anniversary of the Wall’s fall. »Get Armin Petras, he’s from the East!« the director later jokes with me. But I cannot help but think there’s some truth here; he has the right »credentials« to tackle a subject that still divides Germans. But I might rephrase Petras’s quip as follows: »Get Armin Petras, he’s lived personally the story of Divided Heaven, a novel where the central choice is whether to emigrate or stay«.

Petras explains, »I’ve become a specialist for Kleist, Nazi Germany and Eastern Germany, and it’s not easy to remain pigeonholed this way. On the other hand, I like it, because I have a special biography, having been born in West Germany, but with parents who went to East Germany [in 1969] before the Wall came down. It gives me an interesting perspective in relation to German history«.

One might then be tempted to make a direct comparison between Petras’s story, and that of Rita and Manfred in Christa Wolf’s novel about emigration, but theirs is not exactly his own: »I was not a child of the 50s or 60s [he was born in 1964]. We are a totally separate generation from my parents’ generation. At 17, I wanted to leave this country, and at 17 Christa Wolf wanted to start this society«.

Indeed, Petras left the East for the West in 1988. After the Wende, he returned, and now lives in Brandenburg, about which he says: »I wouldn’t live anywhere else: people don’t speak, it’s dry, it’s all sand. It’s brutally hot in summer; it’s cold in winter. People live to work. It is this or that, but nothing in-between. That is what I like about Kleist, for example. When there is ambiguity – it’s a dream, it’s Sehnsucht«.

The production team have been rehearsing for more than a month, and I sit in on a run-through of the final scenes. Massive heating lamps ignite in the warehouse’s ceiling. Below, above the mock-up stage, a video of the actors is projected. Petras meanwhile screams at the top of his lungs.

This takes some getting used to: he is very loud. The hollering is disorienting. He doesn’t wait until the end of a scene to provide his notes, but gives a running commentary – a tactic unusual among directors. »I want the actors to know what I’m thinking, directly«, he says. This is obviously effective, as, behind the partition, the actors don’t hesitate to scream back, between their lines, before they unite around a long table to discuss the day’s practice. Jule Böwe (playing Rita) suggests changes to her character, Petras nodding. Tilman Strauß plays Manfred and Kay Bartholomäus Schulze the doctor. I begin to wonder why there are so few actors. I have already realised Petras has, thankfully, no desire to reproduce the novel scene by scene. Gone are the tedious factory episodes of the »famous brigade«. And soon I learn that his minimal version will be a parlour piece of just three characters, a Kammerspiel. The influence of Kleist is becoming clearer.

»The idea was to take three symbolic characters from the novel«, says Petras, »Manfred represents the choice to go West. Rita represents fighting for the East. The doctor stands for the desire to balance. The doctor is, as in Ibsen, a very strong figure in bourgeois culture. Socialism is also, incidentally, I believe, part of bourgeois culture«.

Regarding characters, one of the challenges I had with the novel was the sense that they were undifferentiated, intangible. Petras suggests I have read too much Faulkner, and am pickled in an Anglo-American desire for subjectivity. Perhaps I am unused to the sense of distance that Brecht and his followers tried to achieve. But Maja Zade, the dramaturge, adds that, since Christa Wolf wanted »to write about herself, it was a way to distance herself from herself«.

Does Petras also wish to create the same effect of Verfremdung? I’d be surprised: he’s known as something of a romantic on the theatre scene. Zade has already told me that they wanted someone who wasn’t cynical to tackle the piece: »It sounds silly, but it’s not all that common in German directors«.

Petras helps us come to a more synthetic position, and I will be interested to see what this means on stage: »In the theatre, I am more in the tradition of Brecht, like Wolf. But in my personal writing, I am more like Remarque, which means being among bad criminal and bad love-story authors. I would say this piece is a mixture between Brecht and Remarque«. Perhaps there’s a clue of what this entails in that we are given a Manfred who is younger and more attractive than Wolf’s desiccated misogynist. Thank heavens, I think. Zade concurs, »It is something we are trying to work with. We have to care about both of them. It is partly that he has an interest he is passionate about: chemistry. And that he really does love her and doesn’t come across as a selfish bastard«.

How then will the stage set look? How will they work with the central metaphor, the sky? I am reminded of the moment in the novel, when Rita finally visits Manfred, the careerist chemist, in a West Berlin unrecognizable to anyone who has actually spent time there (a sweltering hot limbo, claustrophobic, and with no green space). Manfred stands surrounded by garish advertisements on the material Earth, among wilted trees on a West Berlin traffic island. Rita, instead, looks to the sky, the heavenly promise of Socialism’s triumph, where Sputnik rises as a symbol of victorious collective endeavours. Manfred says the sky cannot divide them, but she disagrees. The sky divides them spiritually.

Petras laughs, »Well, there are not going to be any stars on the walls! It’s not my way. I can only say that I believe in playing, and I believe in the text. From time to time it’s necessary to have a picture, a surprise for the audience. This is also the idea of our stage design, to keep it minimal. The stage will surround the audience on four sides, it is like an operating theatre… a space you enter into, rather than a conventional theatre space, so the audience is in the show«.

An operating theatre? The question of illness is central to Petras’s version, and so it is clear why he chose the doctor, over many other characters in the novel, to complete the trio of the parlour piece. Indeed, the approach of the Kammerspiel seems increasingly scientific in colour, and I think of the scene when Manfred raises a chemist’s flask over the flame, and Rita learns over the azure liquids. »You should always wear blue«, he says. »Cobalt blue«. Yes, scientific. The serpentine stage encircles the audience; they occupy the slab where a corpse might be.

Petras tells me that they spent months thinking about Rita’s illness, which she suffers on returning to the GDR after visiting Manfred. »It is a motif in the work of Christa Wolf: how we fight with society, come to a moment of crisis, and then go out for some time into the hospital – illness as escape. Our choice of the figure of the doctor was confirmed by conversations with Gerhard Wolf, by the idea that Christa Wolf herself was at times in hospital, in her crisis moments. It’s strange though that we wrote the script over the summer before knowing these facts. I’m not a Cassandra, but, as a writer, I had a feeling about certain moments in the novel: here is blood, here are bones«.

A minimal production, few characters, a scientific perspective, the centrality of illness… this all seems the correct lens for a body of evidence like Divided Heaven, ready for autopsy, for a distanced historical inquiry about the GDR.

But what more can we see when Petras focuses his microscope? What do we think of Wolf’s complicity with State Culture, with the Stasi (for whom she was, briefly, an informant)? Can we reduce Divided Heaven to a morality tale in the Socialist faith, whose convert, Rita, makes the good »choice« (a choice that is no choice after 1961) to remain in the GDR?

I now want to ask a question that makes me shudder. I hope Petras takes it the right way. I can anticipate how journalists are going to approach this production. They will want to know what »statement« Petras – as an East German director, 25 years after the fall of the Wall – wishes to make about the vanished GDR. They will want a judgement. I ask him, »What are you doing in anticipation of this demand?«

Petras looks at me, and winces – he has obviously anticipated the press angle – and says, »I was at a theatre talk recently, discussing the subject of how to depict the GDR today on stage. I am conservative: I want to let the material speak for itself. But, at the same time, we must ask how the characters would actually act in each scene. I want to be politically correct in this sense: I hate this phrase because it means something very different from what others might understand from it«.

»It’s my hope that people go out from seeing the production and can’t say who was right: Manfred or Rita. What would be even more important would be that they ask themselves in which particular political fight we are now involved. How do we live correctly today? I don’t want people to think simply, how was it in the GDR? Because the GDR is as much history as Spartacus. We need to ask: what is the fight of our moment; on which side do I fight? And, also, to understand (I do, as an older man of my times) that this fight of the moment will ultimately pass and become history. How then do you live on after that moment?«

The historical question is addressed directly in the play, with Petras adding scenes (that he wrote with script from Wolf) occurring after 1989 that do not appear in the novel. He has the characters meet again. I am extremely curious about these scenes, how they will play out, but the director and dramaturge are quite tight lipped: we will need to wait for the premiere.

What Petras has left me with, very strongly, is his desire to remain distanced, scientific, and to let the material speak for itself. But was Wolf herself so distanced? What does Petras really think of the novel? Does he think it was simply a work of propaganda? Or a work of dissidence? How does Christa Wolf judge her protagonist’s choice to return to the East?

Rita’s choice should be an exemplary one, pointing to – as the Communist teacher recruiter Ernst Schwarzenbach puts it in the novel – the »bare naked truth« of Socialism, which is its »decisive advantage«. But the novelist does not make things so simple for her readers. Rita replies to Schwarzenbach, »frightened’: »You’re reading too much into my story’. In this one line, a sophisticated ideological and rhetorical struggle is played out.

What kind of morality tale is Divided Heaven, when the priestess of the Socialist Truth tries to commit suicide after her return from the West (»she was herself carrying out the attack«: a detail that is softened in Konrad Wolf’s more ideologically correct film of 1964)? What kind of morality tale tells its story framed by the protagonist’s convalescence in a clinic? Is Wolf a very sophisticated propagandist, introducing just the right level of criticism of the system to lure the unconverted to the Socialist cause? Or is she a brilliantly subtle opponent of the regime?

Petras puts his interpretation of her position this way: »She ‹protects’ her doubt. That was the general idea of Socialist Realism: to show the problems, the enemy, and then to show how to solve the problems. I would say until 1962, 63 or 64, Wolf was 80% on board with the Socialist cause. It was important to use this novel for our production, as opposed to her other works, because this is the last time that she was directly in the mainstream of society, and connected to it. Later she was fighting constantly against the Party«.

Apparently the censors weighed lightly on Wolf when she wrote »Divided Heaven«. The production team was told this when they met her widower at his Pankow flat to discuss the play. Zade tells me: »We asked her husband if there had been any censorship problems and he said no, but he said there could have been problems, but then the film got made, and the film was such a success that it protected the novel. I think she was a believer. I don’t think she was under pressure. She had a less complicated relationship to her ideology when she wrote it. At that point, she was freer to write what she wanted«.

»Nonetheless, the text is ambiguous« says Petras, and he rebels against the mainstream reception of it, which pegs it unambiguously as either as GDR propaganda or Cold War samizdat. A contemporary review of the novel, from the 60s, in Der Spiegel, particularly riles him.

»The critics at the time were very much against this book« he shakes his head, »saying it’s just a work of propaganda. But I am of the same opinion as you. I think this literature is very interesting precisely because it can be read from different positions«.

Petras leans forward, »This is my biggest problem: the theme is two people who are starting a life, and want a complete life: a life together with their society, in their work. I don’t want to create a play that says: the GDR was thus. It was mostly bad, but also a little bit good. This is not my theme«.

Divided Heaven

by Christa Wolf
In a version by Armin Petras
Direction: Armin Petras

Premiered on 13 January 2015