“You can only fight sorrow when you look it in the eye.” The East German novelist Christa Wolf wrote that sentence in 1963, two years after the Berlin Wall went up and the same year John F. Kennedy delivered his “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech before a throng of West Berliners in front of the Rathaus Schöneberg. The sentence is spoken in the 1964 film adaptation of Wolf’s Divided Heaven, a novel about a love affair between Manfred, a young chemist, and Rita, an even younger woman studying to become a teacher while working in a factory. The novel is set in the German Democratic Republic on the eve of the 1961 division of Berlin into East and West. Frustrated professionally and cynical by nature, Manfred opts to go West just as the last opening is about to close. Rita must decide whether to follow him. To look sorrow in the eye is to make a difficult, tragic choice: difficult because “whatever she decided, she would have to give up a piece of herself,” and tragic because, as Rita comes to realize, she has no choice. She must stay in East Germany; not because of the wall, or because she doesn’t see that one side is richer and the other poorer, and that most things are easier in the West. Rather, as Rita discovers while visiting Manfred, it’s that in West Berlin “everything really comes down to eating and drinking and dressing and sleeping. Why did a person eat? I asked myself. What did one do in one’s beautiful apartment? Where did one go in those cars as wide as streets? And what did a person think about in this city before going to sleep at night?” Left cold by a society with “more glass and cellophane,” one she can see through, Rita returns to the society that, however sorrowful and dark, she feels she can look in the eye.
In her autobiographical novel Patterns of Childhood (1976), Wolf wrote of her younger self, “Her object was to observe some people and envy them a little, and to see through others.” Her life’s work became to record her observations. In her last novel, City of Angels or The Overcoat of Dr. Freud (2010), she wearily admitted that she had sometimes yearned for “the ultimate darkness…that would free me from the compulsion to say everything.” Her protagonists, most of them women—from the Trojan prophetess Cassandra to postwar Rita—are blessed and cursed with the ability to see more than the average person. These women don’t come upon the gift of exceptional sight by accident; they see more because they feel more deeply. Karoline von Günderrode, the early-nineteenth-century poet whom Wolf made the tragic heroine of her novella No Place on Earth (1979), discovers for herself the way “some people become seers: A deep pain or a deep concentration lights up the landscape within.”
The same was true of Wolf. Physical pain, even death, she treated as symptoms of psychological trauma. Of her late friend Christa T., whose official cause of death was cancer, and whose life she traced from World War II to the 1960s in the novella The Quest for Christa T. (1968), she wrote, “Do you really think that she died of this illness? No…. One can always speak of illness. Death-wish as illness. Neurosis as the inability to conform to particular circumstances.” For Wolf and her characters, personal pain and sickness were inseparable from the events and politics of the time. In her novel on Chernobyl, Accident: A Day’s News, from 1987, she related with grotesque exactitude the brain operation her brother underwent the day of the disaster. On November 4, 1989, a few days before the Berlin Wall came down, as Wolf was giving a speech before hundreds of thousands of East Germans gathered on Berlin’s Alexanderplatz in which she exhorted them not to see the events of the day as the coming about of a sailing ship, but as a true social revolution, a rising to the top of what had been on the bottom, she felt a “familiar disturbance” in the rhythm of her heartbeat and had to be taken by ambulance to the nearest hospital.
Wolf died on December 1, 2011, leaving behind more than thirty volumes of fiction and essays and a complicated legacy. After her burial in Berlin, Dirk Knipphals, literary editor for the leftist daily Die Tageszeitung, wrote that “there will be no more authorial figures like Christa Wolf, who in their very vulnerability are heroic.” “Wounded,” wrote another journalist reporting on her death. “She was wounded inside and out; and she collapsed just like the [socialist] system in which she believed.” A distillation of her persona can be seen in the opening credits of the film Divided Heaven, as the camera pans slowly across the face of a woman looking straight ahead, unblinking, with tears in her eyes, reminiscent of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc.