Tuesday 20 August 2013

Heimat (1984)

Heimat!  This Chronicle of Germany is a firm favourite of mine, and not just because of its fabulous duration.  Heimat and I both entered the world 29 years ago, in 1984, and it was watching this intimate overview of the century that first set me on my current course of watching a hundred films from a hundred years, making some sense of the twentieth century as a single story.  As you may note above, there is a video edition of this entry for those happier with dozens of clips than hundreds of written words.

Normally when you watch a film you sit down, you watch, things happen to characters, and you get your resolution and the film stops.  Heimat, though, just keeps going.  It is, in fact, very long, taking around sixteen hours to tell the story of a small village in rural Germany, and a family who live there.  It starts in 1919 and just keeps on rolling until its 1982, by which time our central characters have grown up, grown old and begotten from their loins the new generation of central characters.  In a film of such expanse I think it's no spoiler to say that almost everybody alive at the start of the story has died by the end.  There's something fascinatingly unusual, something Old-Testament-like, about a story in which the main characters at the end aren't present at all at the start, and the only characters we meet in the first hour aren't there at all at the end.  Heimat isn't like other films.  It's like life.

1938: Otto Wohlleben, who begat Hermann Simon
When I first saw it I made a mistake that's easy in real life too - I concentrated on the older generation, on Maria Simon, the film's main character, on Paul and Pauline and Eduard, and I ignored the children, forgetting that they would soon turn into real people, and I'd have no idea where they'd come from.  By the fifties the film has slowly switched its emphasis and become the story of Maria's children Anton, Ernst and Hermann, the last of whom went on to star in the 'Die Zweite Heimat' (1993) and 'Heimat 3' (2004), where he became the cinema character I know best and care about the most - but that's another story.  Characters who'd been the centre of their own lives, and at the heart of the community, become parents, become grandparents, they die of age or accident or war, or equally often we leap forward a few years and they're just gone, just dead.  Quite disconcertingly, the film raises the strange prospect that our grandparents may once have been children and people with lives as fun and interesting as our own.

The film is made up of a number of films - see the postscript for quite how that works - and is shot variously in colour, sepia and monochrome, and on a variety of film-stocks.  It starts almost entirely black and white,' because, y'know, things just were in those days, but is almost entirely in colour after colour television is introduced in West Germany in 1967 (August 25th, if you like to celebrate anniversaries).  It takes a little getting used to, but seems utterly appropriate given how the century's story is one of technological advancement.  Integral to the human stories playing out in the village are the introduction of the radio, the motorcycle, aircraft, and especially the development of advanced camera lenses, as a rural community in the middle of nowhere becomes part of the modern, industrial world.  In the first half the town's core seems to be Matthias's forge - and I'm delighted to see that the prequel 'Die Andere Heimat' -  set in the 1840s and coming to cinemas near you later this year - sees some prominent use of it.  By the end, new industries have risen and fallen, and the village is quite radically different, but remains utterly recognisable.

1944: Anton Simon adjusts a lens.  He later founds Simon Optik
The final telling in particular is perfectly filmed, timed and edited, and despite its optimistic tone and happy ending of sorts, I'd forgotten how upsetting I found it.  There are a lot of images there that linger in the mind, Hermann Simon arriving late to a funeral to find a thunderstorm has scattered the mourners, leaving the casket alone in the sopping street - and the strangely terrifying flyover of the Hunsrück landscape that follows.  This last part uses some strange and unusual techniques, things we don't see anywhere else in Heimat, but uses them to tell a story properly, a story I really care about.  And I don't think this teil's impact comes from its position at the end of an epic - I think anybody who hadn't seen a frame of Heimat could watch 'The Feast of the Living and the Dead', or even just its opening quarter hour, and find something fascinating, tense, engaging, sad and real, which is surely a good set of things for a film to be.

'Heimat', and its follow-ups 'Die Zweite Heimat' (1993) and 'Heimat 3' (2004) are high on my list of favourite things in the world, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if future generations value them highly for their quality as drama as well as their value as historical chronicles.  It's just a pity that, being extremely long German films, most of my fellow Britons haven't found the time or urge to watch them.

1982: Glasisch, who sees the whole story
Finally, and by way of a postscript: is this really a movie, as Wikipedia tells us, or a TV miniseries as IMDB claims?  Well, it's kind of both.  It's a film made of films.  Eine Chronik in elf Teilen.  Its threequel 'Heimat 3' is clearer, 'Film in 6 Teilen'.  I'm a dilettantish speaker of German , but that's surely one film in six tellings, or eleven tellings of extremely irregular duration as the case is here.  But wait, how can something in more than one discrete portion be a single film?  Well, earlier in The Penciltonian I talked about 1924's 'Die Nibelungen', one film in two portions which at five hours was so long viewers went to see part one, Siegfried, then came out to the cinema again the following day to see part two, Kriemhild's Rache.  Then there was 1945's 'Les Enfants du Paradis', which was made in Paris when the occupying forces didn't permit films longer than 90 minutes, so the three-hour story was told as a double bill of a film and its sequel, always meant to be watched together.  And then there was 'Das Boot' (1981), made for cinemas, but also shown in expanded form on telly as a mini-series.  Did I spend eleven hours watching those particular films entirely so I could use them as examples when talking about Heimat?  Maybe!  But they were excellent!  So anyway, Heimat was shown in cinemas, and people would go to watch a few instalments, then go back the next week for the next few films of film.  Rather wonderfully, I understand people started to recognise the regular viewers at the cinemas, and started meeting up with them before and after the screenings, having Heimat parties.  Why don't you have a Heimat party, dear viewer?

P.P.S. I first discovered Heimat by accident, when an erstwhile housemate of mine mentioned seeing it in a local shop, accidentally reduced from £39 to £3.99, and suggested that I go out and buy two copies, one for him and one for myself, before the shopkeepers realised their error.  It was an inauspicious start to a love affair.

The Heimat trilogy. Is there anything more alluring? No siree!

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