❉ “Heimat is a magnificent achievement, a truly pioneering piece of drama which paved the way for the novelistic TV dramas to come.”
TV drama began, as everybody knows, with Episode 1 of The Sopranos in 1999. Before then it was a primitive art form, structured around an episodic, guest-star-of-the-week format, little more sophisticated than the common soap opera. This is, of course, hogwash, and the rerelease of Edgar Reitz’s Heimat (1984) is a good reminder of it.
Though conceived – and initially released – as a series of films, it was shown internationally as a television series. In many ways, it could have been tailor made for a generation that can easily binge watch a day’s worth of drama, pausing only for toilet breaks.
Heimat’s 11 films, episodes, instalments (whatever you wish to call them) take us from the aftermath of World War I to the early 1980s. The story is set largely in the fictional village of Schabbach, in the Hunsrück district of western Germany. The one character who features throughout is Maria Simon (née Wiegland), played by Marita Breuer. We begin with Paul Simon (not that one), the son of Schabbach’s blacksmith, returning to the village after the armistice, but it’s Maria’s story, and the stories of those around her, that carry us through the 20th Century.
It goes without saying, there are tumultuous times ahead. As Heimat’s subtitle (Eine Deutsche Chronik – A Chronicle of Germany) makes plain, this is the story of one community as a synecdoche for the nation as a whole.
The early episodes are particularly effective in illustrating how fascism creeps into everyday life. While the Hunsrück may be distant from Munich or Berlin, the resentments and prejudices that fuel the rise of Nazism are all there, in one village. A local lad is blinded in one eye by a bully (he goes on to become an army sniper). The village mayor rants about the Treaty of Versailles. A Jewish man’s windows are smashed. The mayor’s son, Willfried, becomes an enthusiastic member of the Hitler Youth.
What brings Shabbach closer to the outside world (and many of the horrors this entails) is progress. Paul Simon is a radio enthusiast, using the ruins of a nearby castle to build a radio that picks up a live broadcast from Munich cathedral. Telephone lines are installed (and promptly shot at by the one-eyed would-be sniper). Elsewhere, the world switches from one of horse-drawn carts to motorcars and motorcycles, and from early aeroplanes to American bombers and, eventually, helicopters and fighter jets. The juxtaposition of old and new is ever-present, as in a later episode when a teenage jazz band play their music in a dilapidated, 19th Century Kaiserhalle.
If technology represents progress, history and politics make a stark counterpoint. When war breaks out, Shabbach – so close to the border with France – finds itself caught up in the maelstrom. These sequences do an excellent job of evoking the random, nihilistic cruelty of war. Heimat’s structure and its 60-year span leave gaps in the timeline. Episode 5 ends in 1939, while Episode 6 begins in 1943. Important characters die off-screen, often between episodes, and we only learn of their deaths much later. Nobody’s fate is certain. When Maria’s sons, Anton and Ernst, are declared missing in action (Anton captured by the Soviets, Ernst shot down over France) there’s a good chance we may never see them again.
These middle episodes, dealing with the hardships of the war, are largely very powerful. It’s when handling the war’s end and its immediate aftermath that Heimat loses some of its lyrical subtlety.
A scene in which the ambitious Lucie (married to the mayor) and young Willfried (now a cold-blooded SS Officer) contemplate surrender borders on farce. Characters whose moral complexity was nuanced suddenly become caricatures. The same is true of the eighth episode, The American, in which an older Paul Simon returns from self-imposed exile in the US with a drawling German-American accent and an oversized hat.
This episode tilts towards melodrama, cramming too much incident into a story which, until now, has been happy to take its time. The feeling is one of rushed writing, rather than chaotic circumstance. Heimat’s title (which translates roughly as “homeland”) is a nod to Heimatfilm, a genre of German cinema; simple, schmaltzy tales of rustic folk. But if Heimat was intended as an antidote to those old movies, it comes dangerously close to becoming one here, and the effect is a little jarring.
There’s a sense, in these few misfires, of Heimat sagging beneath the weight of history, trying hard to match the scale or the ferocity of world events but shying away from exploring the psychology beneath them. Willfried, who survives the war (despite being complicit in the Holocaust), features very little from now on. Is his absence meant to illustrate the way in which these men, the underlings of monsters, faded out of view? He could have been a fascinating character to follow in the years of denazification.
That said, the episodes that follow do an excellent job of illustrating West Germany’s post-war boom. Little Hermann follows Maria Simon’s youngest son, 15-year-old Hermann, and his affair with an older woman. Again, we’re in danger of straying into Heimatfilm territory, but this touching story is carried through to its inevitable unhappy ending by Gernot Roll’s stunning cinematography and superb performances by Jörg Richter and Gudrun Landgrebe as the star-crossed lovers.
It’s also an excellent example of the way in which Heimat toys with and challenges the audience’s sympathies. We’ve rooted for Maria Simon from the start, and we rooted for Maria’s son Anton when he marched 5,000 kilometres after the war. Here they are the embittered architects of Hermann’s heartbreak, and the forces driving him away from Shabbach are tangible.
The penultimate instalment, The Front Years, could easily have been Heimat’s finale. The year is 1967, and Shabbach (and, by extension, Germany) is enjoying its first taste of colour television.
This is another example of Heimat using technology to illustrate the march of progress. It’s also a self-referential nod to how director Reitz and cinematographer Roll switch between black and white and colour throughout; sparingly to begin with, shifting gradually to greater use of colour later on.
By now, Hermann Simon is a successful composer, experimenting with electronic instruments, the elderly Paul his enthusiastic accomplice. When Hermann’s latest piece is broadcast live on national radio, the villagers in Shabbach gather around a radio to listen. Few of them – including Hermann’s own mother – are prepared for the discordant, avant-garde racket that comes out of the wireless. Only the character of Glasisch, a simple man and something of a joke in Shabbach, seems to truly appreciate it. The gulf between generations, between ideals and outlooks, between those who took Germany into war and those who led the country out of it, is illustrated nowhere more starkly or more powerfully than this.
The final episode, The Feast for the Living and the Dead, is understandably elegiac. There are flashbacks and moments of insight into past events. It’s set some years on, in 1982. The world has changed again. Where once, a local pilot flew over a village wedding in his Messerschmitt, now American jet fighters soar over a local woman’s funeral; not out of respect, but as an ominous sign of Germany’s place, sitting each side of the Iron Curtain.
A sequence when we pass beyond the world of the living feels unnecessary. Depicting the afterlife onscreen is always hazardous, particularly when the tone till now has been one of stylised realism. Here, a dreamlike village hall setting makes it feel like an am-dram production of A Matter of Life and Death. Worse still, it does a disservice to the passing of not one but two major characters. After the perfectly weighted symbolism and drama of The Front Years, much of The Feast for the Living and the Dead seems surplus to requirements. It does at least attempt to tie up its themes of family and the importance of home; most successfully, perhaps, in a coda in which we see Hermann record a choir in the caves beneath Shabbach.
Heimat was followed by three sequels: Die zweite Heimat (Heimat 2) in 1993, Heimat 3 in 2004, and Die andere Heimat (literally The Other Heimat, but in English speaking territories known as Home from Home) in 2013. These three series take us from Hermann’s experience of the 1960s to the fall of the Berlin Wall and back in time to the Shabbach of the 1840s.
Edgar Reitz’s passion for the Hunsrück (he was born and raised there) and his background as a documentarian are evident throughout much of Heimat. It’s inevitable that an epic work written by one person will have its weak points – even War and Peace has moments that drag – but at its best Heimat is a magnificent achievement, a truly pioneering piece of drama which paved the way for the novelistic TV dramas to come.
Special Edition Features
- Restored from the original negative by The Edgar Reitz Film Foundation
- ‘Heimat – The Hunsruek Villages: Stories From The Film Locations’
- Edgar Reitz’s 2-hour documentary ‘prologue’ to Heimat
- An interview with Edgar Reitz on the making of Heimat
- An interview with Christian Reitz on the restoration of Heimat
- An interview with Marita Breuer on acting in Heimat
- An introduction by Jan Harlan on the significance of Heimat for Stanley Kubrick
- A Visual Essay by Daniel Bird
- 50-page limited edition soft cover book featuring liner notes by Carmen Gray, ‘The Collaboration withGernot Roll’ by Edgar Reitz and ‘Germany as Memory’ by Anton Kaes
❉ ‘Heimat: Limited Edition Box Set’ (Second Sight). Cat.No.: 2NDBR4079 Cert: 15 Running Time: 889 mins approx. Release Date: 9 April 2018. RRP: £79.99.
❉ David Llewellyn is a novelist (Eleven, Ibrahim & Reeni) and script writer (Dorian Gray, Torchwood, Doctor Who).