REVIEW: DVD Release: Heimat: A Chronicle Of Germany

Series: Heimat: A Chronicle Of Germany
Release date: 21st June 2010
Certificate: 15
Running time: 927 mins
Director: Edgar Reitz
Starring: Marita Breuer, Eva Maria Schneider, Kurt Wagner, Rüdiger Weigang, Johannes Lobewein
Genre: Drama/War
Studio: Second Sight
Format: DVD
Country: Germany

Over five years in the making, and with a running time of over fifteen hours, Edgar Reitz’s 1984 epic Heimat portrays the lives of the Simon family within their small rural village against the turbulent backdrop of 20th century Germany.

The majority of the action of Heimat (which roughly translates as ‘Homeland’) takes place in the fictional village of Schabbach, in the Hunsrück region of Germany. The story begins in 1919 with Paul Simon’s return from the Great War. His marriage to the mayor’s daughter, Maria Wiegand, and the birth of two sons does not seem enough to quell his innate sense of restlessness, and by the end of the first episode he disappears, emigrating to America (though as to why remains a mystery to his family and the inhabitants of the village for many years).

The remainder of the series focuses on the villagers of Schabbach, and particularly Maria’s journey from teenager to eventual matriarch of the Simon family.

Against the backdrop of the tumultuous events of 20th century German history, we are shown the impact on the lives of the ordinary German people, ending in 1982 with the death and funeral of Maria…

Despite being hailed by some as a sophisticated soap opera, Reitz has always insisted that his Heimat trilogy owed more to the novels of Dickens and Proust. The first Heimat seems equally indebted to that brand of naturalism that flourished in 19th century European theatre. There, as in Reitz’s film, strictly mimetic realism was often replaced by a kind of heightened realism intended to reveal deeper insights into human nature and our world, often depicting a specific society or social milieu as a microcosm in which universal truths are contained. While Heimat is most definitely concerned with historical accuracy, there are also present a number of features that give the film an added dimension, such as Paul’s hallucinatory visions of a dead war comrade, or the rain that stops, as if on cue, as the children’s choir complete their memorial service song.

Even the film’s elements of melodrama seem conscious on the part of the director, acknowledging the film’s debt to the heimatfilme genre, as well as providing a slightly jarring quality that works like the film’s various stylistic tropes to prevent the viewer from watching the film as historical escapism with no intellectual involvement. Of these stylistic tropes, the most salient is contained in the film’s cinematography. Predominantly shot in black-and-white, there are a number of individual shots in colour, sometimes whole scenes, and a few shots where an object is picked out in colour in an otherwise black-and-white frame. Reitz has stated he used colour to emphasise certain elements, most noticeably the landscapes of the heimat. But for the most part, it seems fairly arbitrary, drawing attention to the film’s artificiality (in the purest sense of the word), while reminding us that the historical background was very much real.

For this is a film that deals with zeitgeist in its most literal sense, haunted by the various ghosts of 20th century European history. As early as the first episode, a minister gives an impassioned speech in which he foresees the day when a ‘genius of (Germany’s) blood’ will rise to lead the country out of its misery. There is a terrible irony in the minister’s belief that this leader will take Germany into a period of peace. Later on, there are foreshadows of Kristallnacht in the smashing of the windows of a Jewish man’s home, and it is not long before the first of the communist sympathisers are rounded up for ‘re-education’ in the emerging concentration camps.

The subtly of its undertones, the simplicity of direction and the palpable warmth Reitz displays towards his characters perhaps account for some of the criticism of Heimat’s perceived romanticising of a traumatic era. While it is true that major events such as the post-First World War period of hyper-inflation are mentioned only fleetingly, this seems more in keeping with the film’s naturalistic approach, where such events have become so much a part of everyday life that it barely warrants mention by the villagers. There is also an argument to be made that relatively self-sufficient rural communities like Schabbach may have been somewhat insulated from the worst of the privations suffered by the country during this period. In fact, it is only when the inhabitants embrace modernisation, buying into the promise of prosperity via the latest motor car, the fancy villa, etc., that problems arise. Everything ‘is on tick’, as Katharina observes, and this knowledge of a debt arising that must be paid for later is equally resonant today. It also gives the portrayal of the village a haunting quality that is something more than nostalgia, almost like a paean to a world that never quite existed, or at least one destined to be left behind by the 20th century.

While some viewers may find aspects of the film troubling from a political perspective (the Holocaust and persecution of the Jews remains largely the elephant in the room of Heimat), it is refreshing to see a film that deals with such events seeking neither to demonise the ordinary German people nor acting as an apologist for the crimes committed within Nazi Germany. Much of this must go down to the strong attention to character paid by the screenplay and the overall excellence of the acting. While essentially an ensemble piece, a number of performances do stand out, particularly Gertrud Bredel as the kind-hearted and down-to-earth Simon matriarch Katharina, and Marita Breuer as Maria, perhaps the moral and emotional centre of the film (as suggested by the film’s ending with her death). Overall, though, this is a series that is very much the sum of all its parts, with a direction that rarely draws attention to itself, and a simple charm that is easy to surrender to.

Realising much of Reitz’s lofty ambition, Heimat is a considerable achievement that repays repeat viewing, containing beneath its relatively simple surface a complexity and richness that mirrors life itself. GJK

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