70 Jahre Berliner Festspiele

Divided Skies – Life In East And West

Camilla Spira and Steffie Spira
Berliner Lektionen 1990
A conversation with Nicolaus Sombart
Renaissance Theater, 16.9.1990

Two sisters who, from the First and Second World War through the division and reunification of Germany, lived very different lives yet shared the same fate. In conversation with Nicolaus Sombart, it emerges how Camilla and Steffie Spira symbolise the reunification of extremes.

Steffie Spira who wears a pearl necklace and looks at her sister, who sits in the right half of the picture.

Steffie and Camilla Spira in: “Divided Skies – Life in East and West”, Berliner Lektionen 1990. Film. Film still

© Berliner Festspiele | Haus Bertelsmann | ZEIT-Stiftung | Steffie-Spira-Archiv der Akademie der Künste

  • 78 min
  • German without subtitles

“Let us imagine a cunning popular author has decided to write a novel, or a film, or – even better – a film series, in which the history of Germany in this century, from the First World war to the division of Germany in two and the equally unexpected and joyful reunification this year is symbolised and embodied in the portrayal of the lives of two protagonists. To do this, he would choose two sisters the same age. Born in the first decade and by the end of the story dignified ladies in their eighties. He would choose them to be from the world of theatre – because it is not class-specific, but sociologically in the middle, and indicates a certain level of culture – both of them have careers as actresses: in Berlin. But now, and this is the big idea, with two highly contrasting views of the world: One is a Communist, a member of the German Communist Party, who is persecuted as a result, goes into exile, and returns to Germany again after its collapse, to a Germany that is divided and for her that can only mean the East of Germany, that was later the GDR and Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble on the Schiffbauer Damm. The other has a career in the West, with Reinhardt, boulevard theatre, operetta, the Renaissance Theater, here in this theatre, the UFA film studios, and from a pretty beginner she turns into an acclaimed star. But she, too, has to leave Germany and returns after 1946, of course to West Germany, to West Berlin, where she continues her career for 20 years.

Our author’s second big idea – this is supposed to be a bestseller, remember – is that both sisters have a Jewish father, Fritz Spira, who also a famous actor too: in the 20s he was more famous than his daughters were. In 1933 he has to take refuge in Vienna. He’s an Austrian and after the Anschluss the Nazi thugs get him and he is deported to a concentration camp. The two sisters are both – the term then was – half-Jewesses. They not only personify the opposition between left and right, East and West, they also personify the fate of German Jews: the German-Jewish cultural symbiosis of the 1920s, the madness of anti-Semitism with its destructive consequences for culture, the problems of a making new beginning after the holocaust. Our author knows that here he is getting to the heart of Germany’s fate: it is impossible to talk about German history without talking about the role played by German Jews. In order to highlight this quite clearly, the author invents suitable husbands for the two sisters. They are both Jewish. The Communist Steffie is given a husband who is a militant Communist. He too is an actor, but he does political cabaret. [...] They never marry, it does not fit their style. They are life partners, who stay together faithfully through all the many vicissitudes and changes until death parts them. And Camilla’s husband? From the educated middle class, a capitalist, millionaire, who fought with distinction in the First World War, a German nationalist Jew like Rathenau, whose German identity is just as important to him as his Jewish identity and who refuses to understand the danger he is in until 1938. [...] And whom his young wife has to force to emigrate. [...] He too returns in 1947, to West Berlin, of course. A villa in Dahlem, a sensible bourgeois marriage [...]. One lives in luxury, which she loves, but despite all her success [...] she’s not really happy. She looks back on her life with melancholy. To the other, money and material prosperity are of no significance. Even her burning passion for the theatre serves a greater political idea: they, the survivors, can build a new world, without war, fulfilled by the ideals of Communism. That was her plan when she returned to Ulbricht’s Germany. What became of that?

On 4 November 1989 she, who had always been content with small roles, made her greatest entrance on the stage of history, one that had always been her home. In front of millions, she condemned a regime that had succumbed to the weaknesses of bureaucracy and the seductions of power, but she continues to maintain her allegiance to the idea for whose sake she served that regime. After the fall of the wall, the two of them are picked up and marketed by a media society. Arm in arm they go from one talk show to the next. A film is made about them. They enjoy it and are sorry about it. A symbol of the reunification of extremes, the reconciliation of right and left, of East and West, a happy ending – that a novel needs, a morality play for lifestyle freaks, who knows …”
Nicolaus Sombart

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