Heimat: A Chronicle of Germany
- TV Mini Series
- 15h 24min
The village of Schabbach experiences the shifting fortunes of Germany from 1919 to 1982.The village of Schabbach experiences the shifting fortunes of Germany from 1919 to 1982.The village of Schabbach experiences the shifting fortunes of Germany from 1919 to 1982.
Don't be put off by its length - it was made for TV and so can be watched as such, an episode a week. After a couple of programmes, though, I guaranteee that will not be enough. And yet it's one of those films you never EVER want to end. If that's not enough, the sequel is even better.
So what is HEIMAT? Nothing less than the story of 20th century German history, told through the experiences of a small village, and one family in particular. But this is not a weighty history lesson. Every major event takes place off-screen - we experience their repercussions on a people remote from them in terms of time and space. The saga is a satisfying feast on the level of a novel-sequence by Powell or Proust - a varied dramatis personae, precise detail, anecdote, incident, communities, generation struggles, local and national crises, social comedy (I hadn't remembered how funny it was), domestic and national tragedy; each episode is packed with these, building up accumalitively a quiet, yet inexorable, power.
'Heimat' means both 'home' and 'homeland', and was also a type of film encouraged by the Nazis, espousing reactionary (no!) sentiments tinged with bucolic utopia. Therefore, although we will be introduced to hundreds of disparate characters, it is appropriate that the main character, and the first image of such a massive document, is the land. Outside of the Archers and King Vidor, you will not see a greater cinematic sympathy with nature, such a feeling for its texture and spirit, such a recognition of it as a marker of human history, as an inhuman constant in a world heading for nihilism, as a quiet, immemorial force thast looks on at, and yet is indifferenct to, a human comedy that becomes steadily unfunny.
The first episode is, in its quiet way, a manifesto of how the film intends to proceed. For all its smooth technical surface, this is a film seething with disjunction, comprised of layers and levels that refuse to cohere in the village's dream of community, continuity and order. As in all great melodramas, this confusion is an apt formal representation of its main character's state of mind.
This protagonist is Paul Simon, who begins the episode walking back from a French prisoner-of-war camp and ends it leaving his wife, child, family, community, past, tradition. He returns from the war into an unchanging quiet village world which could have existed at any time over the last few centuries. Indeed, it's almost as if he is some sort of Prince from fairy tale, returned to awake the enchanted sleeping inhabitants, because life suddenly flourishes in its own way.
The community's rhythm is one of slow circularity - his first sight of his father is of him forging a wheel; the circularity of his plot. And yet all has changed. Most of the men have died in the war - all that are left are invalids, idiots, strange young boys and crusty old codgers.
This is a film so rich, despite its narrative concerns, in detail, image and symbol, that I won't succumb to interpretive hubris. But that initial impression of disjunction lingers. Paul's first action is to urinate; we cut to a shot of a barren, pest-ridden fly-paper, a disgusting image of the entrapment and sterility on offer here. The fly plays a very important symbolic role in this episode, as do all kinds of images of flight - kites, planes.
Paul operates on a different level from his mundane family and neighbours - his world is that of dreams, hope, visions, ideas, fantasy. His pursuit of science and invention - progress - contrasts with the circular harvesting of the men. I used to wonder why the film would alternate between colour and monochrome. I don't think there's a systematic explanation for it - not only does the colour change, but the film stock itself does too - this surface instability in a seemingly gliding technique perfectly mirrors the torment in the mind of a superficially placid man, and makes his seemingly capricious departure more explicable.
The main disjunction in HEIMAT, of course, is that between the characters in the film and us, the viewers. We know what is going to hapen in the future, and this heavily colours a seemingly frivolous portrait of rural life. A huge pig chases away geese, a naked woman - 'probably a Jewess' mutters a witness - is found dead in the forest; a marten breaks into the shed and kills the hens: none of these incidents are remarkable on a narrative level, but create a terrifying sense of foreboding of the horrors we know are to come. There is a little Hitler lord mayor; a hugely comic unveiling ceremony in which the risible words of a puffed-up local dignitary are eerily similar to those that will be used with deadly seriousness by the Nazis; the almost pranklike attack on Jewish political dissidents; the harrassment and ostricising of an amazingly hardworking woman, ostensibly because she slept with an enemy officer, but really because she looks like a gypsy - all these serve to darken a seeming idyll, show that the seeds of Nazism were already truly in place; and you have to try very hard not to slip into disgust, and play 'spot who'll become a Nazi'.
The biggest disturbance of all comes in the plot of the lead character. The first two hours of this film are told largely through the point of view of Paul - both narratively and formally. And yet he ups and leaves, and there are still 14 hours to go. Itr gradually becomes apparent that it is his wife, Maria, who will become the saga's pivotal figure. Now the film becomes a different kind of melodrama, but this was announced from the beginning. While all the men were out japing like kids, the women were trapped behind windows, doing all the hard work, denied the privilege of escape offered Paul.
- alice liddell
- Sep 22, 1999