Heimat - Eine deutsche Chronik

(Heimat - A Chronicle of Germany, Germany - 1984)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Marita Breuer, Rudiger Weigand, Karin Rasenack, Eva Maria Bayerwaltes, Gertrud Bredel, Kurt Wagner, Sabine Wagner, Jorg Hube, Gudrun Landgrebe
Genre: Drama
Director: Edgar Reitz
Screenplay: Edgar Reitz & Peter F. Steinbach
Cinematography: Gernot Roll
Composer: Nikos Mamangakis

If you can imagine a work that fuses the collective memory of an area with that of the authors’, and then renders it on film in all it’s wandering yet richly detailed glory, you can conceive of the accomplishment that is known as Heimat. Drawing not only from his memories growing up in the region, but also from interviewing and conversing with hundreds of people from the Hunsruck region, Edgar Reitz created this cinematic version of oral history. Though the 52 ½ hour Heimat trilogy is fictional, Reitz’s cinenovel is far more true to life than at least 99% of the stuff that passes as docudramas or “based on a true story”. A dense multilayered text covering all facets of life from many angles, Reitz’s aim is to tell compelling stories that realistically observe mankind without judging them. Thus his study of life, which is never sentimental or ideological, helps free us from the stereotypical misconceptions about German citizens while providing an alternative to the tired accounts that dominate our perception of the past.

Dismayed by a typically oversimplified good vs. evil American holocaust film becoming an event when broadcast on West German television, Reitz created Heimat as his riposte. His television series breaks down the limiting depictions of history that revolve around the megalomaniacs and focus on black and white issues, persecutors and persecuted, aggressors and defenders. The history of Hitler’s Germany is perhaps accurate of Hitler and his closest minions, but even the most notorious madman doesn’t define the whole of his country, much less his era. Most people are more concerned with their own family, work, love life, things they have more direct influence and control over. These stories may be less important, but they are far from meaningless. Ruthless heartless dictators are a dime a dozen, but how people lived is somewhat different in every decade.

What we normally consider as history - the ruling party, the not so great dictator, the pointless wars - are always on the periphery in Heimat. Reitz avoids the usual cliches, refusing to depict the big names and notable events. He instead allows their respective presence and occurrence to seep into if not shape the narrative as much as it could be expected to, which in peacetime isn’t very much. However, if you’ve already returned from war you are forever changed, even if only through a certain alienation that’s inherent in trying to feel comfortable in a place that’s gone on without you for a number of years.

Though critics so used to old hat they miss it criticized Edgar Reitz for downplaying certain aspects that are thought to define 20th century German history, whether it be the depression or the concentration camps, I find Reitz’s film refreshing as it’s neither political nor apolitical. Reitz and cowriter Peter F. Steinbach show that while politics effect the lives of ordinary citizens to a certain extent, it’s rarely in the kind of direct, easy to pin down ways we typically see in the few movies that actually want to be political. In fact, the silly fads of the day hoisted upon the public by mass marketers and their enabling subordinates have far more obvious and widespread effects, if for no other reason then everyone encounters them everyday until they are replaced by the next craze. One example Reitz & Steinbach use is having Ernst get into the home “improvement” business, replacing traditional quality with phony stonewall facings. In all cases though, Reitz shows positive and negative aspects of change, and just as his characters do, the audience interprets the events through their own perspective.

It’s not only the bigwigs and historical landmarks that are put on the backburner, Reitz similarly refuses to allow Heimat be defined by big moments in the personal lives of his characters. Births, marriages, graduations, even deaths are noticed more than observed. In fact, we learn of the passing of key characters by seeing a year of death on the family tree, or their headstone at the graveyard. The exception is the death of the matriarch of the house, Katharina (Gertrud Bredel) and Maria (Marita Breuer), as they are the consistent presence, the incarnation of home.

While sometimes tense and suspense, payoffs and climaxes aren’t what Reitz is after. He prefers the petty to the grand, little anecdotes and incidents adding up to something profound. He may focus intensely on a particular year then skip several. We come to sense that everything and nothing is of the utmost significance. A work of such texture, depth, and complexity could never be accomplished in the usual two hours. This near 16 hour masterwork ignores even cinematic convention, maintaining the rhythm of daily life. It’s the accumulation of minute details that eventually add up to a story of great significance.

Reitz’s masterpiece simply can’t be compared to traditional television, as there’s not necessarily a specific reason people do what they do, treat someone in the manner they treat do, especially one that’s specifically related to that character. One thing Reitz has done is eliminate the simplistic cause and effect that dope opera is based on, the actions of the characters are never so obvious we come to them ages before they do. Heimat isn’t the usual judgmental television crap that’s based on action and reaction, for instance someone has an affair so their spouse or lover breaks up with them and then everyone close to both of them is forced to take sides. There’s none of the typical situations that pit saint against sinner, everything exists in gray areas. Reitz isn’t about the decision or the damage done, so much as root of the problem. We see a person with an ambition, a discomfort, some subtle disquiet that nags at their soul until they follow it. He won’t explain it, and in fact it’s difficult to really put into words, but the central conflict of Heimat is between man and his homeland. His decisions aren’t based on loving his family or not, but rather whether he can be comfortable spending his life in the region. Everything else is secondary, and thus there’s a tremendous amount of collateral damage.

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything where the characters have so many varying aspects. Reitz & Steinbach quite simply obliterate the concept of likeable and dislikable, allowing life to shape the characters and situation to shape life rather than consistently imposing a set of morals, values, ideals, which they either live up to or contradict. We are allowed to feel so many positive and negative emotions toward each character, many times at once, but also to so often be neutral. The characters are always complex, sometimes troubling, but at the same time both ordinary and impressive. We rarely focus too much or too long on their strengths or weaknesses. It’s not about flip flopping the characters, they change credibly but the goal isn’t to show them evolve or devolve as individuals, this is of course part of most great movies or novels, but greatness is never attained by narrow definition. Heimat is more about pitting the specificness of your roots against the universality of human experience to show lives so unique yet so familiar, a mix of the unfathomable (unless you’ve actually lived it) and the incredibly familiar (from your own experience). Reitz once commented that, “The work itself gives no answers whatsoever, but the observer gives himself answers. The work gives him time, and again the key to unlocking those secret rooms (of your own soul)”

Brothers Anton & Ernst provide a good example of the impossibility of consistently rooting for or against anyone, of thinking they are simply amiable or abominable individuals. Anton is quiet and sensitive in his youth and early adulthood, but loud and judgmental once his business succeeds, playing the boss of his brothers as well as his coworkers. Still, Anton is the proper son who does what he’s expected of him, for better and worse, while Ernst is an adverturer who is something of an unsuccessful version of his deserting father Paul, doing his own thing irrespective of anyone else. Anton stands for building a tradition of quality, not simply practicing traditional methods but rather doing things in the proper manner so business is beneficial to someone beyond the owner. On the other hand, Ernst stands for fashionable change, perfuming new wood to smell as if it were antique, an authentic relic of 100 years ago. Still, at least in the short term, this also makes people happy.

Anton is the heel of episode 9, a tyrannical bully who persecutes adult Klarchen (Gudrun Landgrebe) for loving his teenage brother Hermann (Peter Harting), even getting her fired from a job she takes in another town after she’s no longer welcome in his office. In episode 10 he’s the hero, ignoring his father’s advice to sell as he did and keeping his business as a symbol of quality and the primary source of local employment, thus preserving his Heimat from the interloping multi national corporation that invariably strives to eliminate competition and standards.

Ernst is at his most likeable in episode 9, standing up to his older brother who has always bullied him, treating him as if he were instead his father, when he tries pulling the same thing on Hermann. He helps Hermann by secretly delivering letters to and from his lover Klarchen after Anton has made it impossible for them to communicate. However, he soon reminds us of his selfishness, even stooping to getting his lackies to strip his childhood home of it’s history, of any antiques or anything he might get a few marks for, while he’s at his mother’s funeral.

Eduard’s wife Lucie (Karin Rasenack) is the type of character that’s easy to detest. She’s a complete self aggrandizing phony who always has to be the center of attention, a chameleon who constantly adapts to the fashionable principles, sucking up to everyone who has more money or power in hopes of exploiting their resources to her advantage. Even if the drama queen is soiled by her unyielding desire for advancement, she is intelligent and resourceful, rising from whorehouse matron to dignified mayor’s wife. Though as everything else it’s more to her benefit than his, Lucie getting Eduard (Rudiger Weigang) elected to high office is akin to single-handedly getting Dubya into office if Dubya had no money, family heritage, or powerful enablers to rig the election in his favor.

Both generations of Simon mothers, Katharina then Maria, are honest and truthful if simplistic. They aren’t particularly educated, but are sensible characters who possess conventional and practical wisdom. Katharina isn’t blinded by change of any form, which always puts her at odds with Maria’s brother Wilfried Wiegand (Han-Jurgen Schatz), who like Lucie allies himself with whatever party is presently fashionable. Katharina’s son Eduard is also a follower, though generally not dangerous like Wilfried, as he’s a good natured simpleton rather than a fanatic who has no qualms about going along with whatever would seem to benefit him.

Once Katharina’s son Paul Simon disappears the end of episode 1, we realize it’s Maria that will be the hero of the coming episodes. Despite being deserted, left to raise two young boys on her own, Maria is a glowing, loving woman until Paul returns to Germany after WWII. His first attempt to come back in 1939, in fact the first contact he’d made with any of them since his unceremonious departure, ruined the only love she ever experienced in her life with Otto (Jorg Hube), an engineer who became a boarder in the Simon home while building the first highway through the area. Though Paul wasn’t let off the boat because they couldn’t prove his pure German blood in time, Maria casts Otto off, with the broken hearted man signing up for the suicide occupation of landmine defuser.

Until stealing some moments with Otto, discovering new activities such as dancing and auto racing which open her eyes up to possibilities and aspects of life most people take for granted, Maria never had a chance to have or enjoy her own life. She went from working at her father’s to taking care of the Simon family, soon without another adult to share the joy and burden with, leaving her with little time for friends or outside pursuits. Between Otto’s death, Paul’s return, the arrival of her son Ernst’s supposed girlfriend Klarchen as yet another tenant in the cramped little house that still doesn’t have him as he hasn’t returned from the war, and generally everyone and everything slowly leaving her behind, Maria loses her smile and enthusiasm for life. She still never gets riled up, but she becomes a rigid and dull character, a kind of walking corpse, reliable and well functioning only because she’s reprising her daily routine. Maria was a young mother raising Anton & Ernst and she was able to share their hobbies, photography and model airplanes respectively. Now all she has is Hermann, who she had with Otto when she was 40, but he grows increasingly distant as his schoolwork (trigonometry) is above her and as she isn’t cultured she’s unable to appreciate if not comprehend the literature he loves and the music he creates, which eventually includes prerecorded sound effects.

Little Hermann seems the most personal episode as a young Edgar Reitz had a relationship with a woman 11 years older and left his Heimat after high school to pursue a career in the arts. Though Reitz isn’t nearly as big a name abroad as contemporaries of the New German Cinema such as Werner Herzog & Wim Wenders, after filming Yesterday Girl for Alexander Kluge, a cinema colleague at the Ulm School of Design, he won best first feature at Venice for Mahlzeiten and had a series of successes for the next decade before the colossal commercial failure of by far his most expensive feature, The Tailor of Ulm, seemingly sent him into retirement from feature film making. As it turns it, it reconnected him with his roots, prompting him to combine the personal and professional into the documentary on the Hunsruck region Geschichten aus den Hunsruckdorfern, now considered a prequel to the Heimat trilogy. The self discovery continued, ultimately propelling him to the fictional works that have become his signature pieces. By the late 1990’s, when Stanley Kubrick decided his best chance at passable dubbing for Eyes Wide Shut would be to have his favorite European directors act as overseer for their respective country’s version, it was Reitz who was asked to handle the German version.

Heimat, which means homeland, is very specific to a way of life in a certain area during the 20th century, but has been received very well abroad as the story is ultimately universal, as in the end life at any time and in any era is built around the same few primary characteristics. The greatest conflict in Heimat is the struggle to belong in and to your homeland. Those who leave perpetually long for their roots even if they attain success they never could have at home, as your homeland represents security, innocence, perhaps even your very essence. It’s a place of nostalgia, but also of pain and rejection, a personal warfront. Reitz finds many ways to show this struggle is between progress and tradition, as men invariable alter their homeland then long for the previous comforting state.

Reitz doesn’t bow at the alter of progress. Selling your cow is a loss because you’ve been milking the animal all your life. Even if it’s no longer worth the hassle to do so, it’s been a consistent daily form of sustenance for as long as anyone alive can remember. Maria only agrees to sells her cow because her sister-in-law Pauline (Eva Maria Bayerwaltes) convinces go with her to visit Paul in America, where he’s made his fortune as the owner of Simon Electric, which would leave no one to care for the beast. We never find out if they make the trip, which would be a major event in Maria’s life though the men venture to all corners of the earth she never leaves the region even for a day trip. But the point is it’s the end of an era, no more animals for nourishment at the Simon home. That said, Reitz isn’t simply against progress, as that would be equally narrow-minded and simplistic. The irony of the dual meaning is part of the reason he chose the title Heimat, as Heimatfilm was originally a genre of Nazi propaganda films that glorified the rustic past for ideological purposes. In the 1950’s, the genre’s aims shifted toward capitalism, exploiting the tourist potential of the traditional less developed areas.

People come and go, but Reitz largely sticks to the Shabbach region, as home is the center of everyone’s world. More specifically, men leave to pursue their careers while women provide a sense of home by holding down the fort. Home is not so much a place to Reitz, but rather your mother’s house with her in at, the location of all your memories since childhood. The center of Reitz’s film is the historical old Simon house, as it outlives any and all tenants. It’s stable even as all else shifts, but sometimes this stability is alienating, for instance when Paul return home from World War 1. It’s not so much that his homeland has changed, but rather that he’s transformed into another person to the point he no longer feels he belongs.

Though Shabbach is the center of the universe for pretty much all the characters we encounter, we see the difficulty of living in a small town as invariably everything of real importance takes place elsewhere and all ideas, changes, and developments are ultimately imported. This breeds a feeling of helplessness, a sense that one has to leave to truly accomplish anything, though as always this is countered. Utilizing the clean air of his heimat to set up Simon Optical Factory, Anton’s company becomes the clear leader in the field.

Heimat is a moving piece of cinema in part due to Reitz’s ability to profoundly express multiple conflicting feelings at once. For instance, the scene when Anton is reunited with his wife Martha (Sabine Wagner) after his 5000k walk back from WWII is a mix of loss and hope. After all the bloodshed and death he’s withstood, he immediately announces he’s going to make it in opticals, he even doubled back to figure out all the necessary steps to make the business succeed.

Among the 5000 non professionals that took part during the two year filming, many locals, often amateur theater actors, are cast in prominent roles. They not also lend a regional authenticity, but more importantly serve as co-collaborators, contributing their recollections and remembrances. The most successful of the amateurs is Kurt Wagner, who plays the film’s narrator Glasisch, an outsider who comments upon the lives of his relatives but rarely has much direct participation in them. Born in 1900 like Maria, he’s in many ways her opposite as she’s always accepted and respected while he’s always been the outsider looking in. Returning from WW1 with a skin disease that doesn’t make him a favorite of the ladies – he looks like Pascale Greggory playing Cyrano de Bergerac - he’s now often dirty and treated as dirt. Though town drunk is dealt with akin to a retard, if this idiot savant is a fool, he’s Henry Fool. Glasisch is arguably the most perceptive character, shown in minor examples such as being the only one to see through Hermann’s masking devices and detect his sound effects are nightingales.

Each episode opens with Glasich organizing a series of photos, always shown to be mere poses, to piece together a narrative. Reitz never allows us to feel we are getting anything but a perspective. History, official or otherwise, is simply an author’s interpretation of what’s worth remembering, which changes from episode to episode, or book to book.

Reitz allows the talented cinematographer and sometimes director Gernot Roll, probably best known abroad for lensing Caroline Link’s Nowhere in Africa and Beyond Silence, to convey the concepts, ideas, and themes through the imagery. The conversation interweaves important aspects, but doesn’t spell everything out for the usual series of didactic dissertations. The controversial aspect of the presentation is their decision to alternate between black and white and color. In general, the memories are shot in black and white when color is irrelevant to the memory and color when it’s pertinent, for instance when scenery, landscapes, decorations, or fruit make an impression. A red hot iron can only be shown in color, but this aspect is rather inconsistent as it seems Reitz & Roll more or less decided on the fly, going by feel.

Heimat is filmed as a memory, imbued with echoes of the past, both obviously (flashbacks) and symbolically (repetition of objects, events, with similar light and framing). Scenes of walking down a long straight road or even making a phone call are staged to evoke occurrences of the same event in the past. Life is a series of repetitions, differentiation coming from the ever changing if not evolving manner in which we experience it. The act may be the same, but each incident is slightly different, the aspects that are noticed, that come to the forefront or are disregarded yielding variance.


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