Karl Erp, the head of the district library in Berlin, the capital of the GDR, a forty-year-old family man with a nascent abdomen, wakes up in his room with a smile on his face. Reading the book at breakfast, he thinks of Fraulein Broder. After graduating from the library school, she, along with another student, goes through a six-month practice in his library.
On the eve of the meeting at the meeting, the question was decided on which of the two trainees to leave in the library after passing the final exams. The director of the school recommended Broder, she is a Berliner, from among those who will wither without Berlin. The question was settled in favor of the girl, all recognized that her knowledge is enormous and the moral shape is impeccable. But after the meeting, colleague Hasler
Reflecting on the appearance of her subordinate, Erp remembers her posture, pleasant restraint, and in the features of her face finds something “offensive”. Then he sees the smiling lips of the girl, hears her soft intonation, which sometimes leads to confusion of the interlocutor. It becomes irresistible when “naturalness breaks through artificial coldness.”
While Erp thinks about the trainee, absorbing the delicious and healthy breakfast prepared by his wife, Elizabeth is engaged in children. Elizabeth asks her husband if he will return home in time, and is satisfied with the negative answer. She has studied her husband well and does not doubt that she will then find out everything in detail. She is not afraid of stories with women, he always talks about everything. Elizabeth is sure that her husband did not deceive her, did not violate matrimonial fidelity. It sometimes creates anxiety or jealousy and tries to suppress it.
The family lives in a well-maintained house with a garden, received by Elizabeth from their parents who moved to West Berlin. Erp fell in love with this house, proud of the lawn, which he himself is engaged in.
The working day stretches for Erp unbearably long. He has to inform trainee Krach about the decision in favor of Fraulein Broder. Erp tries to comfort the disgruntled Krach, revealing to him the prospects of library activities in the village and cursing Berlin. The conversation ends with the malicious remark of the trainee travelled – Erp himself for some reason does not leave to work in the village. Erp is embarrassed, it is painful for him to have enemies, he is used to the popularity of both women and men.
In the evening, Erp goes to visit his sick trainee and, under a plausible pretext, give her good news, Fraulein Broder lives in an old, neglected house with a lot of noisy and crowded tenants. Here she was born and lived with her parents, now deceased.
Erp climbs the dirty stairs and stands for a long time in front of the Fraulein’s door to calm down the excitement. From the very morning he anticipated this moment, and now he was afraid that one of her eyes would “kill all hope.” This does not happen, and, since both were tireless talkers, their meeting lasted six hours.
Home Erp returns at half past two in the night. Elizabeth silently accepts his apology, and then listens to the details. Charles does not have secrets from his wife, he feels the need for “honesty.” The husband describes the house and the tiny room Broder: the kitchen is on the landing, the restroom is on the other floor, one for all the tenants. He already hardly remembers what they were talking about: the problems of librarianship, literature, the psychology of readers, sleep mode, mint tea, the Bundeswehr… Erp describes in detail the peculiar habit of the girl: she constantly strokes her eyebrows when she listens. Then comes the conclusion about the dangers of sleepless nights and the benefits of home cozy evenings with his wife and children. Elizabeth should understand that this Broder is the most intelligent and most tiresome of all girls.
Elizabeth is an extremely silent woman, her life and interests are entirely owned by the family. Karl always felt that he can not unravel the soul of his wife, and he does not strive for it, only allows himself to be blissed under the “warm rays of her love.” On this night Elizabeth realizes that the husband has fallen in love, which he tells him in person. She immediately sees in it some changes that are noticeable only to her, and vaguely feel ready to violate marital fidelity.
Carl disappoints Fraulein Broder as a man and a boss, not matching her ideas about him. She always expects more from people than they can give. Broder read all Erp’s library articles published in the press, and has long respected him as a professional. And he comes to her with a bottle, the same as all men, arrogant and, apparently, with one desire – to sleep with her.
In the morning, Erp writes to the girl a letter No. 1 – the evil, “agitator” letter of a party member to a non-party man, who it’s time to know that socialist morality does not require a vow of chastity. Broder finds a letter without a stamp and a stamp in his mailbox and understands what is happening to him.
One evening, when Erp sits at Broder, his colleague Hasler comes to his house and remains, talking to Elizabeth, almost until his return in the morning. The colleague is concerned about the issue of morals, since Krach has already let the gossip through the library. Hasler learns from Elizabeth about many things and feels that her adaptation and obedience is the basis on which many families are held.
This time a crucial conversation takes place between the spouses. Karl tries to put his guilt on the shoulders of his wife: he married her, not loving, because she wanted it. After such a false statement, Elizabeth decides to divorce, although Karl does not insist on it at all. His wife’s behavior is again a mystery. The library staff discuss the director’s romance with the subordinate. Krach intends to complain about “instances”. One employee, a great erudite, calls Erp “Buridan’s ass”, described back in the Middle Ages. That ass was dead after much thought about which of the two identical fragrant haystacks he should prefer.
The Christmas night Carl spends with the Fraulein, this is the first real night of their love. The next day he moves to her with two suitcases.
The first day together is filled with discoveries for both. Broder discovers that “gigantic love” is turning into a “dwarf” fear for his reputation. Karl learns that the neighbors call his beloved “sparrow”, and that she is used to solving everything herself.
Hasler expects Erp to make a strong statement about the creation of a new family. But he is silent, and then Hasler himself formulates the conditions – an immediate divorce with the transfer of one of the two to another library.
In a miserable situation at home, Broder Erp is really suffering. The noise of neighbors is audible all night, in the attic mice and rats are carried, from four o’clock in the morning the walls are shaken by the noise of the printing house, it is unusual to sleep on the inflatable mattress. Insomnia torments him, he faints from self-pity. “Vorobyshek” takes a washstand in the ice-filled kitchen for a long time, then prepares unfermented coffee and eats a badly smelling sausage for breakfast instead of marmalade. Going to work, she leaves the bed untidy until the evening – for “airing” – how can he return to such a room?
Karl constantly attacks his beloved, while she is only defending herself, she is protected from the remnants of male love of power. But she is not irritated, because she suffers only from him, and he – and from her, and from the environment. She suggests that he go to work in the village together, but he knows how “she” is attached to Berlin.
Gradually Brodeur embraces fear that for Karl’s love difficulties can not be overcome.
Erp visits the village of a deadly sick father, a former teacher in those parts. He shares with him a change in his personal life and sees that the father is on the side of Elizabeth. The old man notices to his son that he does not like the word “duty” and insists on happiness, but only those who can renounce him have happiness.
Time passes, and Erp never applied for a divorce. Meanwhile, matters with his career are perfectly settled. At the next meeting in the library, he admits that he “lives with his colleague Broder” and intends to divorce his wife. The director considers it unfair if Broder should leave the library, as she was promised a post. He takes the blame on himself and says that he will leave himself. His decision was made – this shock for Erp, secretly he hoped that his victim would not be accepted. To “sparrow” he comes with a tragic face and expectation of gratitude for the sacrifice.
At this time, Erp’s friend from the Ministry reports that he is officially offered to hold a post in the same ministry in Berlin. Thus, all conflicts are finally resolved by the socialist state. But Erp does not experience special joy, because now all his decisions are deprived of a heroic halo. He accepts the offer with restraint.
Brodeur does not know anything, she passes her final exams to the school, and then asks her to send her to work in the village. When she returns home and tells Erp about her decision, he is not terrified, does not ask her to take a decision back and does not assure her that she is ready to go with her anywhere, especially to her beloved province. He immediately accuses the “sparrow” of arbitrariness and takes the form of an insulted lover whom the woman wants to abandon. Erp does not inform Broder about his new appointment in Berlin and allows her to leave for voluntary exile. He remains with the “bleeding heart” – from which the stone of responsibility fell down.
Erp returns to the family. As before, he tells Elizabeth about everything himself, “honestly”, “without subterfuge” and “mercy” to himself, “Golden chain of love” turned into “shackles” and “traps,” he had to go to a violent break.
Elizabeth takes him back to the family where fourteen years of their life together have passed. Elizabeth tells herself that she does it for the children. For these months without a husband, she is already winning her place in public life, having mastered a new profession for herself.
Elizabeth goes to bed with the door locked. What does this woman change so much? No one can know this.