Heimat – Eine deutsche Chronik (1984)

“A catastrophe! What we need is a catastrophe! An earthquake, a flood, or better yet: a train wreck. A forest fire, perhaps? The California forests are burning all the time. Nothing ever happens in this godforsaken Hunsrück!

– Lucie, Heimat 1

Heimat: an unparalleled achievement
There can no longer be any question that Heimat, German director Edgar Reitz’s monumental trilogy, belongs to a handful of cinematic works that can without hyperbole be rightfully called masterpieces.  Following the lives of three generations of the Simon family from the fictitious village of Schabbach, encompassing the 20th century from the end of WWI to the present day and spanning over 52 hours, Heimat 1(1984), Heimat 2 (1992) and Heimat 3 (2004) constitute an achievement unparalleled in the history of cinema. The film, a work of tremendous range, power and beauty, exported to 44 countries, seen by tens of millions of people worldwide and the recipient of several prestigious awards has nonetheless been greeted by what can only be qualified as a conspiratorial silence by the press on this side of the Atlantic. At the Website IMDb, the film has received a paltry 600 ratings (cf. 128,956 for Saving Private Ryan). A cursory search of the Web yields a dozen or so notices, few of which give more than a bare outline of the plot, perhaps a word or two about the history of WWII, and maybe a mention of the ‘daunting’ length of the trilogy. As of yet, no meaningful discussion of the 1,500 page-long screenplay, no analysis of the film’s style — aside from the obvious alternation of B&W with color (although one insightful reviewer has gone so far as to proclaim that the film has no discernible style!), and no acknowledgement of the film’s towering stature in the history of European cinema. Among English-speaking countries, the film has fared better in Great Britain, where it has been broadcast by the BBC (which maintains a website devoted to the series) and received glowing tributes in The Independent and The Guardian. It should come as no surprise then, that, in a recent interview (l’Humanite, 3/29/06) on the occasion of the French premiere of Heimat 3, Reitz commented that this was the only country where they have spoken to me about tracking shots and lighting, due probably to the fact that cinema is rooted in France’s culture.

Edgar Reitz, son of a watchmaker, was born in 1932. He grew up in Hunsrück and, after finishing school, left for Munich, where he studied German literature, journalism and drama. He has been involved with literary works, avant-garde music, literature, the fine arts and film since the mid-1950s. He made his first films in 1958, was a member of the Oberhausener Group who founded Young German Film in 1962 and declared Papa’s Cinema dead. Together with other young directors he founded the Film Institute at the Design College in Ulm the following year. For 8 years Reitz taught stage direction and camera theory at this the first film school in the Federal Republic of Germany. His first feature film Mahlzieten appeared during this time and was honored as best debut film at the Venice International Film Festival in 1966. Numerous feature films, documentaries and experimental films followed, which received international acclaim and several awards, including prizes for Die Reise Nach Wien (The Journey to Vienna) and Stunde Null (Hour Zero). In 1971 Reitz founded a production company in Munich, which has since produced both its own projects as well as films by other directors. Since the mid-1970’s Reitz has published a number of books on film theory and film aesthetics, as well as narratives, essays, poetry and the literary versions of his films. 1995 saw the founding of the European Film Institute EIKK in Karlsruhe with Reitz as Professor for Film at the National Design College in Karlsruhe.

(Source: Artificial Eye)

Genesis of Heimat
Reitz, at the lowest point in his career after the failure of the costume drama Der Schneider von Ulm (1978, The Tailor from Ulm), which cost him several millions to produce, was invited by friends to spend New Year’s eve at their holiday home on the island of Sylt.  There followed a freak storm which buried Schleswig-Holstein in snow for three weeks, giving the director ample time for introspection. Reflecting upon the downturn his career and personal life had taken, he was led to examine his own and his family’s past.  At precisely the same time, another decisive event was to have unforeseen consequences. Watching the American television mini-series Holocaust, Reitz became troubled by what he saw as ‘German history reduced to the level of fiction in an American film studio.” Stimulated by this confluence of events, Reitz began writing a semi-autobiographical work, the first 100-page draft of Heimat. He stayed on until the end of February, when he took the train to Berlin for the Film Festival, where he met an old friend from the WDR (Westdeutscher Rundfunk), who later became producer of Heimat 1 and Heimat 2. Working with co-writer Peter Steinbach, a heftier 250-page draft soon became a 1,500 page screenplay.

“We should not forget that shooting pictures or making a film is something intrusive. You cannot make a film without causing harm or destroying something. The machinery that you use, and even the film script that you arrive with in your head, has something powerful about it, and is always in conflict with the real given situations. Film teams have a tendency to remove everything that gets in their way. When you are filming anywhere, in any street, you have to clear away everything that does not fit the story, life is expelled from the scene, entry is refused to everyone, cars are towed off. The location has to be emptied, so that it can be brought back to life. For me as a film maker that is somewhat wearing. Filming is often a crazy business. Yet sometimes when the clapperboard is struck, one senses the magic of film. Everyone holds his breath; all stand silent and feel the inner stillness of the scene. My biggest problem is to create a picture of reality without destroying it. Reality as a product of art, that is the true process of filmmaking.” –Edgar Reitz, Interview with Ingo Fliess, 6/28/2004

For an entire year, the director scouted out villages in Hunsrück (between the Mosel and Rhine rivers in southwestern Germany). Reitz had to carefully plan shooting and arrange with villagers to disturb their daily lives as little as possible, as a large film crew can easily disrupt the life of a small community — the cast alone was composed of 200 actors and actresses, and as many as 5,000 extras. The ‘peaceful’ countryside posed special problems of its own for the film crew. Apart from noisy farm machinery, the director had to contend with the unwanted sounds emanating from a nearby American airbase.  Pre-production was followed by two years of shooting (268 days of actual filming) and two years of post-production. During production, Reitz had to scramble to put together financing for the £2m budget project, minuscule by today’s standards. Heimat 1 was released in theatres for a year before being televised. Attracting on average 12 million viewers each evening it was broadcast, Heimat 1 became the greatest success story in the history of German television.

Physical and emotional toll
The physical and mental preparation for the rigors of filming was decidedly different from that of a typical feature film. The six-seven year investment required Reitz to make drastic changes in his lifestyle. In addition to quitting smoking, he ended the nightlife and drinking associated with the film business and made certain to get enough sleep. He took part in more sports activities and bicycled whenever possible. In spite of the financial, logistical and artistic hurdles to overcome during filming, there is no strain evident in the picture. Reitz, intimately aware of the 100 years of cinematic history preceding him, eschews unnecessarily complicated scripts and innovation for its own sake. His theatrical background is evident in the superb writing, the exquisitely nuanced changes of tone, and the amazingly natural performances Reitz elicits from each and every one of his performers, professionally-trained or novice.  Reflecting his respect for all his actors, there are no ‘secondary’ roles. In fact, for a filmmaker who has been at the forefront of the avant-garde, who has worked in theatre and experimental film, and who was among the first in Germany to recognize the expressive possibilities of the Web, Reitz’s film is surprisingly accessible, appealing both to the connoisseur as well as to the casual filmgoer. The end result being a work that defies categorization, but which recalls early Truffaut in its beauty, lyricism and grace.

Epic ambitions
A heady mixture of romance and history — equal parts autobiography, poetry, literature, music, legend and tradition — Heimat is an endlessly fascinating work. Reitz has said that he wanted to capture on film something of the epic grandeur found in literature: Buddenbrooks, War and Peace, the works of Proust and Balzac. What is incredible is that he succeeds. The dialogue is never less than adequate to every situation, whether it is the gallows humor exchanged between Maria’s lover Wohlleben and his assistant Pieritz, assigned to bomb demolition during the war; tragi-comic, as when Martina entertains her critically injured husband in a bombed-out shell of a building in Berlin; or intimate, as when Maria, after an evening at the movies with her sister-in-law Pauline, does her hair up like Zarah Leander, “the Diva of the Third Reich”. The two-dimensional characters of the Nazi sympathizer Wiegand and his son Wilfried (an officer of the S.S.) being the exception, they are continually derided in the film by the townspeople as cowardly, miserly, opportunistic and greedy. Reitz has said that births are not nearly as interesting as death, and looking back on the entire work, we see that this is so: all the women’s husbands have gone off to die in war; the fate of many is uncertain; children die of disease, or landmines; Maria’s sons Ernst and Anton, Pauline’s husband Robert, and many others like them are displaced throughout Europe. This transience is precisely what lends the film much of its gravity. One of the most poignant scenes of Heimat 1 is in chapter 18 of the 11th episode, where we see the characters assembled together reciting their lines, a testament to the power of art to transcend life. Beyond the characters portrayed in the film are the hundreds of cast and crew members, some of whom devoted a good quarter century of their lives to help Reitz realize his ambitions, many of whom had difficulty adjusting once the project reached fruition. Reitz’s own son Christian, who was Gernot Roll’s camera assistant on Heimat 1, was the principal cameraman on Heimat 3. Salome Kammer, who plays Clarissa in the second and third installments, is Reitz’s wife of 18 years.

A stumbling block for many of even the most gifted filmmakers is the soundtrack. This is particularly true of historical dramas, which seem to suffer the most from the mistaken notion that, in order to give appropriate ‘weight’ to the proceedings, are burdened with unwieldy symphonic scores or excessively melodramatic music. Happily, the soundtrack provided by Nicos Mamangakis manages to achieve the impossible, finding just the right tone for each situation, and is continually alive to every nuance of Reitz’s ever-changing moods. Music is to be found everywhere in Heimat: whether it is Leo Slezak interpreting Schubert on early radio; the solemnity of a church choir as they sing Silent Night at Christmas; a children’s choir singing in the pouring rain at the unveiling of a monument for the fallen of WW1; Maria and her daughter-in-law singing in the car on their way home from the station; an Italian barber on Ellis island interrupting his routine to join with his countrymen in a round of song; or the otherworldly sounds emanating from a cave beneath Schabbach at the film’s end — music forms an integral part of Reitz’s Heimat.

The art of the 20th century?
Winter of ’44. Reitz has a fanatical captain attached to a propaganda unit at the front exclaim, “Did Dante really enter the Kingdom of Hell? Did Hieronymus Bosch see with his own eyes the Garden of Pleasure? … No! But the divine flame consumed them! The artist sees things according to his own inspiration. Do you know who said that? Our own minister, Dr. Goebbels. Does that surprise you? The true art of the 20th century is not the feature film, but the newsreel.” Geobbels, connected with Kristallnacht in 1938 and later with the Nazi Endlösung (Final Solution), pioneered the use of broadcasting for propaganda purposes. Reitz, no stranger to journalism, is persuaded otherwise, and points out that the most enduring works have been not documentaries, but works of fiction, or reenactments, such as those by Flaherty.

Changing landscape
“What has always enchanted us is that very beautiful landscape. Landscape is more than just a district. It speaks its own language, and envelopes us with a spirit of its own. Those slate mountains are permeated with fossils and treasures in the ground from millions of years of the earth’s history. Also the ways and means by which people have wrung their living space out of this landscape clearly produced a special relationship to it.”  — Edgar Reitz, 6/28/2004

In addition to creating some very memorable characters, Reitz has also celebrated the land. Concluding the first part of the trilogy is one of the most haunting images of the film: an underground concert given by Hermann in a mine beneath Schabbach, an eerie sepulchral chorus. A more evocative and potent image of the artist is difficult to imagine. Imbued with poetry and images of stark beauty, Heimat 1 is only the beginning of an art that will become more personal, more refined, and yes, more subversive, in Heimat 2.

Film Culture
It is incomprehensible that Reitz’s work has been ignored in this country for over 20 years. If the 52+ hour saga proved daunting to critics, it will not seem long enough to viewers watching it at home. Now that the trilogy is at last being released on DVD in the UK, France, Belgium, Germany and the US, film lovers will be able to judge for themselves whether critics have been fair in burying in silence a filmmaker as worthy of our esteem as are Wenders, Fassbinder and Herzog. Macaulay wrote, in an essay on Dante, “though a rude state of society is that in which great original works are most frequently produced, it is also that in which they are worst appreciated.” Any discussion of Heimat must inevitably address the level of film culture in general and the decline of film criticism in particular. Why the silence in connection with the film, which has been shown in 44 countries, now available on DVD in French, English, German, Dutch? I would argue that Reitz’s work will never be fully appreciated in the United States, or acquire anything like a following, until this issue is resolved, because for that to happen, commonly accepted canons of taste would have to suddenly be overthrown. Critics incapable of distinguishing between Begnini and Chaplin, or between Spielberg and Klimov, compare Reitz’s Hunsrück to that of Woody Allen’s New York, or to the television series “Dallas”. Is it any wonder that the audience for independent and world cinema has been for years on a steady downward spiral?

Edgar Reitz, Die Zweite Heimat (Heimat 2)

The unkindest cut
Heimat was broadcast on German television, but was mercilessly butchered, to the understandable horror and anger of the director. Heimat 1 was shown twice on US television: once on cable in 1985, and again in the Fall of 1987 by PBS. The film received a very limited theatrical release here prior to being televised, but received unfavorable reviews by J. Hoberman of The Village Voice, and by Timothy Garton Ash of The New York Review of Books, who charged Reitz with sidestepping the issues of guilt and responsibility for the Holocaust. Fortunately, Reitz did not give up the distribution rights, and viewers may enjoy the work as it was intended to be seen on DVD. A word of caution however– the R1 transfer by Facets video has been horribly botched up: the image is soft; colors are faded; and the non-removable subtitles are surrounded by black rectangles, making the American release one to avoid. Thankfully, Tartan has done an exceptional job on the PAL R2 UK release, and the first two titles in the series are now available at a 48% discount, a significant savings.

Directed by: Edgar Reitz
Written by: Edgar Reitz and Peter F. Steinbach

Cast: Marliese Assmann (Apollonia), Eva Maria Bayerwaltes (Pauline), Helga Bender (Martina), Gabriele Blum (Lotti), Roland Bongard, Gertrud Bredel (Katharina), Marita Breuer (Maria), Willi Burger (Mathias), Juliane Damm, Doris Gistke, Peter Harting (Hermann), Otto Henn (Glockzieh), Ingo Hoffmann, Jörg Hube (Otto Wohlleben), Michael Kausch (Ernst), Karin Kienzler (Pauline), Frank Kleid, Werner Klockner, Mathias Kniesbeck (Anton), Hans Koppenhöfer, Manfred Kühn (Wirt), Stefan Kuhn, Günther Külzer, Gudrun Landgrebe (Klärchen), Arno Lang (Robert Kröber), Zarah Leander (Zarah Leander), Michael Lesch (Paul Simon), Johannes Lobewein (Wiegand), Johannes Metzdorf (Pieritz), Reinhard Mosmann, Josef Peil, Otto Prochnow, Karin Rasenack (Lucie), Markus Reiter, Jörg Richter (Hermann), Gerd Rigauer (Obergefreiter Gschrey), Rolf Roth, Dieter Schaad (Paul), Hans-Jürgen Schatz (Wilfried), Gertrud Scherer, Eva Maria Schneider (Marie-Goot), Alexander Scholz (Hänschen), Elfriede Scholz, Kurt Wagner (Karl Glasisch), Sabine Wagner (Martha), Wolfram Wagner (Maethes-Pat), Margarethe Walter, Rüdiger Weigang (Eduard), Manfred Zimmermann

Produced by Hans Kweit, Edgar Reitz, Joachim von Mengerhausen
Original Music by Nicos Mamangakis
Cinematography by Gernot Roll
Film Editing by Heidi Handorf
Production  Design by Franz Bauer
Costume Design by Regine Bätz, Paul Reinhild, Ute Schwippert

Fernweh (La nostalgie du voyage, The Call of Faraway Places), (1919-1928) – disc 1 – 119 min
Die Mitte der Welt (Le centre du monde, The Centre of the World),  (1929-1933) – disc 2 – 90 min
Weihnacht wie noch nie(Un Noël exceptionnel, The Best Christmas Ever), (1935) – disc 2 – 58 min
Reichshöhenstrasse(La grand-rue du Reich, The Highway), (1938) – disc 3 – 58 min
Auf und davon und zurück (Aller et retour, Up and Away and Back), (1938-1939) – disc 3 – 58 min
Heimatfront(Le front au village, Home Front), (1943) – disc 3 – 58 min
Die Liebe der Soldaten(L’amour des soldats, Soldiers and Love), (1944) – disc 4 – 59 min
Der Amerikaner(L’Américain, The American). (1945-1947) – disc 4 – 102 min
Hermännchen (Le petit Hermann, Little Hermann), (1955-1956) – disc 5 – 138 min
Die stolzen Jahre (Les fières années, The Proud Years), (1967) – disc 6 – 82 min
Das Fest der Lebenden und der Toten (La Fête des vivants et des morts, The Feast of the Living and the Dead), (1982) – disc 6 – 100 min

I pointed out elsewhere a review of the film in the Guardian Unlimited, but more eloquent than words are the dazzlingly beautiful photographs reproduced in two now out-of-print books but fortunately made available online for all to see:

Here is a comprehensive site devoted to Reitz and his films, listing CDs, videos and books, both in and out of print (in German).


English translation by Angela Skrimshire (UK) and Wolfgang Floitgraf (USA) of Ingo Fliess’ interview with Edgar Reitz

Note: The version I watched for this review was the TF1 French release

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