Thoughtful reviews, the Boulder film scene

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— Edward Arnold, The Devil and Daniel Webster

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The Great Train Robbery

(review...)

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What can you say about a film that comes in eleven parts and is 925 minutes long... and is the first part of a trilogy with a total runtime of nearly 54 hours? The first thing would be that it is really not a film but a TV miniseries. However writer/director Edgar Reitz says it’s a film, and I say why not? Its photography is as good as any film, the acting and storytelling is as solid and anyone who can get a project that big off the ground, gets to call it anything they want.

Still, at 15+ hours, you’re not going to watch Heimat in one sitting. It’s divided into episodes like any regular miniseries and that is the way I watched it. When Heimat first aired (1984), the only comparable series in the States might have been the prime-time soap opera Dynasty. Twenty-five years later and after the invention of the Cable miniseries, we’ve seen The Wire, Deadwood, Oz,and even watched Tony Soprano’s kids grow up. Compared with those “films” Heimat does not fare as well. But at the time... it was darned good stuff.

The first third of 54 hours, on DVD
The first third of 54 hours, on DVD

“Heimat” translates roughly as “home” but it has the deeper meaning of “mother/father land”... the place of your origin and center of your heart. You may travel the world and live in other places, but in the end you have only one heimat. For an American that vibe might be found in a Norman Rockwell painting ... a dreamy fiction but a genuine emotion. Perhaps Reitz took the title from the “Heimatfilm,” a genre of German cinema that appeared after WWII and seems to have been a sort of German Gone with the Wind nostalgia for antebellum Deutchland.

Heimat begins in 1919 when Paul Simon (Michael Lesch) returns from the Western Front to the little village of Schabbach in the Hunsrück region of the Rhine. He marches straight up to his father’s smithy and without a word takes up a hammer and begins to work as if the war had never happened. His father doesn’t miss a beat and together they hammer the red hot metal before it cools. This is the heimat in a nutshell. It is Paul’s mother Katrina (Gertrud Bredel) who breaks the spell and pulls Paul into her kitchen, the very heart of their home, for his true and emotional homecoming. It is an amazing bit of poetic filmmaking and I thought to myself, “this is going to be good.”

Paul has been beyond the Hunsrück and survived the war. But he has lost his connection to his family and to Schabbach and he is restless. The wider world and the new century call to him figuratively and physically over the primitive radio he has built. Though he works as a blacksmith, he wants to be an electrical engineer... a radio-man. By 1928, he has married Marie (Marita Breuer) the daughter of the rich mayor and they have of two sons Anton and Ernst. Then Paul simply walks away without a word and will not be heard from again until 1939. And after that, not until 1945. He has gone to America where he becomes a rich but crass industrialist. How you going to keep them down on the farm after they’ve seen Verdun?

Marie is left to raise the boys herself and becomes the central character, the family kitchen her stage for the rest of the story. She and Schabbach survive the monetary crisis of the 1920s , the economic recovery and rise of the Nazis in the 1930s, the second war in the 1940s and then another miraculous recovery of the 1950s. The series ends with her funeral in 1982.

Along the way we watch as the Simon family grows, ages, and dies while Schabbach and the Hunsrück endures. The cast of characters is long and there’s plenty of time to develop them. The other main players are: Mathias (Willi Burger), Paul’s father, Eduard (Rudiger Weigang) and Pauline (Eva Maria Bayerwaltes) his brother and sister, and my favorite, Glasisch (Kurt Wagner) the oddball village drunk (and as it is revealed, its keeper of memories). Breuer and Wagner play their characters through the entire 60+ year time span. Other roles are played by multiple actors. By the time Paul returns, he is played by Dieter Schaad and the adult sons are played by Mathias Kniesbeck (Anton) and Michael Kausch (Ernst).

There is no single story in Heimat. For instance Anton and Ernst both go off to war, Anton making propaganda films on the Eastern Front and Ernst as a pilot in the Luftwaffe. Somehow both survive. Anton walks 5,000 kilometers from Russia through Turkey and Greece and Ernst avoids capture after being shot down in France. The solid pragmatic Anton starts a business (with help from his rich American father) making optics and Ernst schemes first through the black market and then in other more legal but impractical businesses. In one episode he is moving lumber from the forest to the river by a helicopter he bought with black market diamonds (what he calls his Nibelungen horde). And that is just the sons’ adventures. All of the other main characters also have their life-stories told. It is an epic canvas and the scale of Heimat is more than can be covered here.

In the accompanying notes, Reitz says he was initially motivated to create Heimat after watching the American TV mini-series Holocaust which he says had “... German history reduced to the level of fiction in an American film studio. I saw how it was all taken seriously and how the question of guilt in German history was being discussed by all the great German intellectuals on the basis of this travesty.” I don’t think Reitz can be called a Holocaust denier, but rather was taking issue with that particular depiction. He then set out to tell an alternate and broader history of Germany in the 20th century. It also hints at a streak of anti-Americanism.

In fact, Heimat tells us more about Edgar Reitz than it does about Germany. I was hoping for the grand sweep of history as seen through the lens of the little Hunsrück village of Schabbach in the Rhine Valley. And the first half of the series does do that. But after WWII, it is another matter. When the war ends and the Americans arrive, Heimat seems to lose its wider historical purpose and begins to narrow its focus onto individuals (and in particular Hermann, the illegitimate son of Marie and the civil engineer Otto). It is as if Reitz is shutting out any thought of the invasive American culture. This disappointed me because the influence of America on Germany after the war is no small thing. For Reitz to have diminished it is simply odd.

There is a lot to like about Heimat. I loved Reitz’s use of both black and white and color photography which makes the scenes sometimes as if a memory and sometimes at the moment. Each episode begins with a recap of the events so far as told by Glasisch and his collection of snapshot photos. His voice is dubbed into English so that the subtitles will not distract from the photos. Since the rest of the series is in German with English subtitles, this seems at first strange but I quickly came to enjoy Glasisch’s telling of the story and his enthusiasm for his photos.

I credit Reitz for wonderfully portraying an idealized place and populating it with an engaging group of characters without being too sentimental or sanitized. There is silliness and sadness, loyalty and betrayal, practicality and foolishness. But Heimat is more than just Lake Woebegone with Nazis. It is an attempt by Reitz to rekindle some national pride in the Germans. Can we call his romanticized story a chronicle or his own idealization of Germany? ... probably both. Heimat has its warts and it has a lot of beauty. I found it well worth the effort.

(This is the first part of the Heimat trilogy, Reviews of Heimat II and Heimat 3 to follow)

DVD Extras

Facets has provided a nice little booklet with synopsis of the episodes and historical highlights of the time portrayed. There is also an introduction by Professor Marc Silberman, University of Wisconsin that is helpful.

Picture and Sound

Picture and sound are mostly good. There are a few videotape artifacts but they do not interfere with the story.

How to Use This DVD

Don’t expect to learn everything about German in the 20th century. Brushing up on your history is not essential but probably helpful.