HEIMAT: A CHRONICLE OF GERMANY. (1984) WRITTEN, DIRECTED AND PRODUCED BY EDGAR REITZ. STARRING MARITA BREUER, HENRY ARNOLD, SALOME KAMMER, MATTHIAS KNIESBECK, MICHAEL KAUSCH, NICOLA SCHOSSLER AND JAN DIETER SCHNEIDER.
REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©
‘All soldiers go to Heaven and get a white robe.’
‘I hear that gypsy women shave themselves down below. Is that true?’
‘And now we see our women bed down with Frenchies.’
‘They call me a French whore. Must I pay forever because there was a war?’
This magnificent series, composed entirely of eleven feature-length films, is the brainchild of Edgar Reitz, born in 1932 with a skilled craftsman for a father, like his protagonist Paul Simon. Yeah yeah, you can call him Al, lol. Get it out of your system now, ye messers.
Anyway, properly entitled A CHRONICLE OF GERMANY, it tells the story of a German family from 1919 to 1982. They live in the fictional rural village of Schabbach and their quiet country life is offset against the wider political developments in Germany, which was known as the Weimar Republic from 1919 till the early 1930s.
The Weimar Republic was famous for its cultural revolution. The Arts were fully embraced during this period and women also began to Americanise themselves, cutting their hair short, smoking and shortening their hemlines to match their jazzy hairstyles. The cultural revolution of the Weimar Republic was known as a Golden Age for Germany. Many marvellous films were made here then, books written, music composed and pictures painted.
The word HEIMAT itself means ‘homeland’ or ‘home place,’ but there’s no exact English equivalent. I know what you guys are all dying to ask and that’s this: Is Hitler in it? Is he in HEIMAT? Believe it or not, Hitler didn’t just spring fully-formed from the mouth of hell in 1939, just in time to start the Second World War. That’s what we kids used to think in school. Even as early as 1919, he was working away in the background, doing stuff.
Between 1919 and 1928, the timeline for the first film of HEIMAT which we’ll look at today, Hitler was a busy man. He was gaining a reputation for himself as a great public speaker, setting up the Nazi Party, and taking part in the Beer Hall Putsch, writing MEIN KAMPF (MY STRUGGLE) while languishing temporarily behind bars for his part in the Putsch.
He was also meeting and befriending Goebbels, who was later to become his reviled Propaganda Minister, and making his first hate-filled speeches against ‘the real enemies of Germany,’ the Jews. Obviously he did many more things as well. This is just a broad outline of what he ‘achieved’ in this time period.
Although it’s something of a dubious recommendation, Hitler himself would have adored this first film of HEIMAT, known as FERNWEH or THE CALL OF FARAWAY PLACES. He loved all things rural and had an idealised vision of Germany where shirtless, sweaty men worked and tilled the land and fed the nation while women with shiny flaxen plaits breast-fed the babies and looked after the home and their men.
He had a real thing for women in traditional old German dress, and was never happier than when Eva Braun put on one of these flouncy-aproned, puffy-sleeved frocks for him at the Berghof, his beautiful mountain hideaway in the Obersalzberg mountain retreat in the Bavarian Alps above the market town of Berchtesgaden.
He loathed anyone smoking, especially women, so Eva Braun had to have her puffs in secret, and he also hated women who were caked in heavy make-up. One imagines, therefore, that he wouldn’t have been happy about this short-haired, more mannish new look women were embracing during the period of the Weimar Republic’s cultural revolution.
At the start of HEIMAT, we see the protagonist Paul Simon (yeah yeah, where’s Art Garfunkel…?) coming home from the Great War. He’s young and handsome and appears physically unharmed at least, unlike his friend (HEIMAT‘s narrator) Glasisch Karl, whose hands are all over scabs and rashes from the mustard gas used in World War One. What an awful thought.
At first, Paul seems completely out of it. He feels like a stranger amongst his large family and the wider community of villagers. His parents own a farm and a forge and, now that Paul is back, he’ll be expected to work at one or the other or at both. ‘Father wants me in the forge and in the fields, to carry on his work.’
His sister Pauline does both housework and farmwork and his semi-invalid older brother Eduard (‘Eduard, your lung!’) has an obsessive love of photography. (The story of HEIMAT is told through the hundreds of photographs he takes.) Many friends and relatives are constantly hanging around the farmyard kitchen, the central or focal point of the narrative, so, as you can imagine, there’s not much opportunity for quiet reflection.
We quickly discover Paul’s main talent and biggest interest. He spends hours up in the loft fiddling with radio wires and batteries for his radio transmitter. In the early days of radio, Paul, who learned Morse Code during the war, wants ‘to make a short-wave radio receiver with which he can listen to the whole world.’
He does manage to pick up Mass from Cologne Cathedral during a village picnic in the ruins of an old castle and the old folks are thrilled. There’s nothing old folks like more than a good Mass. Except for maybe a good Confession, haha. Nothing like a nice spiritual enema for clearing the crap out of you. Shudder.
Meanwhile, Paul’s older brother Eduard, already an amateur but extremely enthusiastic photographer in his spare time as we’ve said, is trying to cash in on the massive monument business that grew up after the end of the War. So many German men died in that war. Now they must all be commemorated by having their names chiselled permanently onto huge memorial stones lugged from the quarries, which are doing great business these days.
Eduard is unveiling at this particular memorial stone ceremony not only the monument itself, but also his top-secret patented invention for unveiling monuments. It’s so funny, this bit. It’s something I never gave any thought to before, the fact that so many mens’ deaths had to be commemorated via a monument of stone that someone actually invented a contraption for their smooth unveiling.
It’s really just a series of pulleys and whatnot rigged up to lift the sheet off the monument, which looks like a giant ghost reaching up towards the sky. It turns into quite a beautiful and moving scene, with the umbrellas and the rain and the choir of schoolgirls singing angelically to commemorate all the fallen soldiers. Karl Glasisch comments irreverently here: ‘If I’d fallen in Flanders, I’d be on this memorial and people would lift their hats to me.’
What’s most memorable, however, is the speech being made here by the local bigwig. At the time, Germany, having been deemed to- ahem- have been responsible for the First World War (no waaaaaay…!), was being crippled by the terms of the Versailles Treaty.
They had to pay x amount of money in reparations (whatever it was, it was humongous) and were positively forbidden from re-arming themselves. Of course, when Hitler came officially to power he said ‘fuck this shit for a game of soldiers’ and, just like that, he threw the whole thing out the door like an old carpet, the whole Versailles treaty. But for now, the Germans were feeling the pinch, and what the officiating bigwig says at the monument-unveiling ceremony is actually eerily prophetic:
‘Germany will one day arouse the genius of its blood who will deliver us from this dungeon of humiliation like a Saviour. Already we sense his shining presence in the distance, then peace will come. A peace necessary for the strong future of our state and which will influence world history. Our loved ones did not die in vain…’
Well, he’s literally just predicted the coming of Hitler but whatevs, let’s move on. Time passes and Paul marries a local girl called Maria and they have two baby sons together called Anton and Ernst. It’s obvious to the viewer that Paul’s still madly in love with a dark-haired girl called Apollonia who’s had a child by a Frenchman, leading the prejudiced natives to call her a gypsy, a whore and a traitoress. Nice people, eh?
Apollonia offers Paul the chance to run away from Schabbach with her, but he can’t leave his radio battery and his precious wireless. He could always have taken them with him, but no. He’s not far-sighted enough to work this out. Oh well, it’s his loss, and Maria’s waiting in the wings anyway, for her own chance to nab Paul.
Hitler would have hugely approved of the women singing at their looming and weaving, and of the man who says at the village picnic in the grounds of the old ruined castle, quoting a favourite idea of Uncle Adolf’s: ‘What we need today are really feminine women and masculine men, inwardly and outwardly.’
Come to Schabbach and meet the boy whose brother put his eye out with a fork at their Confirmation, the baker who lost three sons in the Great War and, my personal favourite, an old geezer who can unfailingly tell the weather from the condition of his cellar steps.
You can also meet Paul’s sister Paulina Simon’s older husband, Robert, a jewellery-maker who can fashion wedding rings from your own gold and who shares a house with Jewish businesses, whose windows are already being shattered by hooligans as early as 1923.
There aren’t really any Jews in the village of Shabbach, so we only hear about their fate in World War II second-hand, such as when Maria’s handsome blonde younger brother, Wilfried Wiegand, who’s in the SS, makes a casual reference at a party to how ‘the Final Solution to the Jewish problem’ was continuing at a galloping pace, with the Jews all going ‘up the chimney,’ with an accompanying ‘poof’ sound. Paulina asks her brother what he means by people’s ‘going up the chimney,’ but he doesn’t explain and she doesn’t push the issue.
The years go by, anyway, as they tend to do, and Katherina and Mathias Simon, the original materfamilias and paterfamilias of the family, grow older and eventually go to the churchyard.
Paul goes off to America and later returns, Eduard marries Lucie, the ambitious former madam of a brothel who’ll push him farther than he probably would have gone on his own, and World War II happens.
Anton and Ernst go off to war and come back and Maria, their mother, has a child called Hermann with their pre-wartime tenant, engineer Otto Wohlleben, who comes to the Hunsruck area to build the highway, and later defuses Allied bombs for the benefit of the German army.
The action in HEIMAT goes all the way up to 1982, and ends with a scene of Heaven on earth in the town hall during a village fair that leaves me blubbing like a baby every time I watch it. Be warned. It’s a five-Kleenex ending, at least…!
AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY OF SANDRA HARRIS.
Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, poet, short story writer and film and book blogger. She has studied Creative Writing and Film-Making. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, women’s fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline.You can browse or buy any of Sandra’s books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page: http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B015GDE5RO
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