on 30 July 2005
If I could take one movie to my desert island, this would be it - from the first scene I was entranced.
I played my DVDs through immediately they arrived, even though the showing on BBC 4 had only just finished. I shall replay them once every year as a special event.
Heimat 1 is the story of three generations of three families connected through tradition, at least to start with, and intermarriage. It is set against the background of two World Wars and several crucial technological and socio-economic changes. To a fictional rural village, Schabbach, in the Hunstruck, which has probably been much the same for two or three hundred years, comes photography, radio, telephone, a highway, consumer credit and factory farming. At the beginning the Simons' slate and timber farmhouse is full of people, extended family and neighbours. At the end Maria, the mother, dies alone. In contrast Katharina, the grandmother and blacksmith's wife, lives her traditional life and dies surrounded by her extended family - a perfect fit.
But it wasn't all roses back then. Katharina's younger brother, Glasisch, returns from World War 1 with a skin disease caused by exposure to gas. "Get your scabby fingers away from me" is all his lot, and, although he's central in almost everything that goes on in the village, he's also an outsider and therefore makes the ideal narrator for the film, a detached observer.
There are other literary-type devices, such as the untimely death of Otto, Maria's lover in middle age. He was just too good for the world.
A lovely piece of irony occurs when Edward, the sickly son of the family, has been sent to Berlin to get his lung seen to. His mother, Katharina, is afraid he'll be seduced by a mysterious French woman who's just passed through the village. Instead, he's landed by a brothel madam who has "moved in the highest circles" but nevertheless mistakes Edward for a man of property, all down to a misunderstanding over his Hunsruck dialect.
One of the things that makes the Heimat 1 so riveting is what we aren't told. Why did Paul walk out on his beautiful young wife, Maria, and his two sons? Did Maria and his sister Pauline ever visit him in Florida as they planned late in their lives? What did Maria's revolting brother, Wilfried, die of at 57? Pauline became a business-woman, what in? Why did Paul prefer Hermann, his wife's son by another man, to either of his own boys? What was going to happen to Anton's health and Anton's business? Heimat lives on.
I also loved Nicos Mamangakis's music composed for the film. I got the impression people and/or places had their themes, but this is one for the next time. The sound quality is great.
Music is also a central theme. Hermann becomes a composer. His first work, for orchestra and tape recordings of such disparate things as chain saw and birdsong, doesn't go down at all well in the village hall. Only Glasisch is moved by it. However, at the end of the film, after his mother Maria has been buried, Hermann in chatting with an old-timer in the village cemetery and realises he's forgotten the dialect words for gooseberries, sloes and bilberries. He also discovers that the local disused mine has brilliant acoustic qualities. Out of these elements comes a tonal choral work using dialect words and performed in the mine. This is his tribute to his heimat. Paul, who has become a public benefactor donates the Simon house to the village
"Heimat" is one of those words which won't translate accurately. It means homeland and home in the sense of home and hearth. At the end of the film both Paul and Hermann recognise that in the death of Maria, the woman they both ran away from, they no longer have a home.
Poor Maria reaped the whirlwind Katharina escaped by dying in time. She spends her final years alone, carrying on the traditional crafts, such as making sloe wine that'll probably sit untouched on the shelf, and wishing her son Anton would visit her more. (The other son, Ernst, is busy persuading local people to modernise their houses and selling off the original fittings to do up pubs in Dusseldorf).
One of the things I found most touching was the ease with which people were taken in to the Simon household. Paul marries Maria and she moves in. Kath goes to visit her brother in Bochum and comes home with her niece, Lotti. Anton meets Martha in Hamburg and sends her, pregnant, to his mother to be looked after. At some stage Kath's sister, Marie-Goot, moves in. All these people appear get along quite happily and share the household chores. But when it comes to Klarchen, a former girl friend of Ernst, Maria isn't so pleased, with good reason, as it happens . . . .
If you are shilly-shallying over the price of this set, don't, buy it. It's well presented with an excellent introduction giving a synopsis of each episode, a summary of concurrent historical events, a biography of Edgar Reitz and details of how the film was made and who was in it - handy if you get muddled over the family tree.
The film is visually stunning. It's a family saga, it's socio-economic history, it's about growing up and growing old, it's more than the sum of its parts, it's life in microcosm.
PS. If this helps, I'm 57, a townie and loathe sentimentality.