When we consider many of the novel adaptations made at Ufa in the 1930s when, actually, the Nazi propaganda saw its heyday, it is hard to capture the traces of their literary sources. Considerable exaggeration in fear of any immorality explicitly displayed resulted in altered, distorted content. And that travesty seems to be very noticeable in Carl Froehlich's movie the title of which, HEIMAT (Homeland), is one of these titles that could be labeled: misleading and meaningful alike.
From the very start, with the credits, we are led to the atmosphere of the times and Zarah Leander, the close up of the face of studio queen, a sort of "the Garbo of the Ufa Studio." Soon we hear her singing "Drei Sternen" (three stars) with her deep voice, something that carried so much charm and magic at the time that even the propaganda leaders could not resist it. Most of that charm, however, has not stood a test of time and, after all these years, we are led to capture just the glimpse of who this woman was and what she managed to evoke in her roles in a short career span.
In HEIMAT, the movie made by the director the legendary actress most collaborated with, she handles the portrayal of a woman who leads us all to a conclusion that is not so widespread these days: success and career do not necessarily go with inner peace and happiness. Maddalena becomes the sole master of herself, a personality whose life blends art and reality, blissful illusion and bitter consequences that life sets forth. Comedy blends with drama (something very realistic). This aspect of both femme fatale and a woman being emancipated is echoed in many of her later films, particularly, DER WEG INS FREIE where an artist copes with the unexpected 'surprises' that conventions and gray everyday offer. All the aura, so to say, around her evokes and intensifies these feelings quite convincingly in spite of highly dated acting style.
The first aspect in that 'aura' is the place where the action is set - a small German town in 1885 where the prefabricated conventions take over all feelings of genuine self. She comes to her hometown as a very famous opera singer, as Maddalena dall'Orto and is going to sing something meaningful, something that may at least call our attention to her inner torments, Bach's PASSION ACCORDING TO ST MATTHEW. But, as it usually happens in such pretentious movies, art occurs to disguise the past. How will she deal with the bitter secret she carries in her heart and is yet to be revealed in the most unpredictable circumstances? The secret of the life in Berlin and one Bankdirektor von Keller (Franz Schaftheitlin)...
Another aspect in that aura are the visuals. Everything seems to evoke her mental and psychological states. Thanks to heavy influence of the German Expressionism's tradition and some elements of Stanislavskian method, the viewer is memorably led to the world of changeable moods that the protagonist goes through. In one of the most unforgettable scenes of the movie, Maddalena enters a Gothic church where the shadows, the organ music, the architecture that in a racket like fashion seems to take a 'mental and visual' flight, the aesthetic mannerism and extreme emotions subvert our senses. In another scene, she enters her home after 8 years and touches the objects clearly evoking the emotional ties to the things and memories. Mind you the wonderful use of ostentatious, elaborate sets with the dazzling close-ups of Ms Leander's face.
Finally, a significant aspect is her singing which contributes highly to the merits of the movie supplying it with desirable resonance of the drama. She sings like Ms Dietrich as far as magnetism is concerned and unlike Ms Dietrich when we consider dramatizing. Meanwhile, her songs provide us with a unique artistic experience. The song about three stars as well as the more 'emancipated' song 'Die Liebe' (Love) work on a creative level of communication even with the viewers of today. Note, for instance, the moment she sings at the harp or the musical and emotional crescendo of the finale.
But after seeing the film, I had such a feeling that it would be a great exaggeration to say that this is purely a Zarah Leander movie, that it is worthwhile seeing merely thanks to her. As a matter of fact, she may occur too dramatic, too pretentious in her style to many people among modern audiences. Such a portrayal of a woman, an artist and a mother seems to occur one of the reasons why the film may be considered dated. There is, however, one performance that will actually never allow us to analyze it as old fashioned and barely convincing. It is Heinrich George's portrayal of the father. The actor who was highly underrated in his time achieves something special. His role is not an easy one, he depicts a man deep in his own world-view, an authoritative but affectionate parent (he has his own premonitions - consider his memorable line he utters to his daughter "You have retained a good heart but there is something in your eyes I don't like"). He is a loyal citizen but, above all, a humorous fellow. Drama and comedy find best balance in him. This role recalls heavily his portrayal in DER POSTMEISTER where he did not play with Ms Leander but Hilde Krahl.
That is why I consider HEIMAT a great Zarah Leander and Heinrich George's achievement. Highly worth seeking out.
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