Karl Simrock, an East Berlin high-school teacher. Soon after his thirty-sixth birthday, he examines his past life and finds it wanting. His marriage is empty, and his work as a teacher is governed by authoritarian regimentation. He leaves his wife, Ruth, and daughter, Leonie, and enters into a relationship with Antonia Kramm. At work, he starts to measure the difference between East German ideology and reality. He tries to teach his students to question and doubt, not merely to accept. This emphasis causes him to lose his position, and he takes work as a bakery truck driver with Boris.
Ruth Simrock (rewt), a part-time insurance agent and Karl’s wife. Karl complains that she will not accept certain matters as “women’s business.” Very controlled, she never cries, even when her husband suddenly leaves her. She admits that marriage to him has been “hellish.” She accuses him of leaving her because school authorities “broke his back.”
Kabitzke (kah-BITS-keh), the vice principal at Simrock’s school. A timid sycophant, he cannot understand Karl’s rebelliousness and warns him that it is self-destructive. He refuses to support Karl publicly.
Antonia Kramm, a former physics student, now a free-lance typist at the age of twenty-eight. When younger, she was a textbook socialist; she became embittered by the hypocrisy of her society. Accepted at a university, she studies physics to avoid politics, but after three semesters she is nevertheless exmatriculated for political reasons. She attempts to create the greatest possible independence for herself, dreaming of “islands of solitude” in a society of enforced community. On vacation in Hungary with Simrock, she attempts, without first informing him, to escape to Austria. She is caught and imprisoned for at least nineteen months.
Boris, a physically strong, twenty-two-year-old bakery truck driver with “charming long hair.” His dream is to see Liverpool. No heroic worker, he believes that anyone who claims to derive satisfaction from delivering bread is a liar or a fool. He goes through the notions of political commitment, not out of conviction but to be left in peace. He thus destroys Karl Simrock’s remaining illusions about his society.