Edgar Reitzs monumental 11-part series Heimat tells the story of Schabbach, a German village in the Hunruck region, from 1919 to 1982. The story unfolds through the eyes of Maria Simon as she marries, raises her sons, and grows old while Germany changes around her. The Simon family, like the rest of the German people, endure the hard times after WWI, struggle with the rise and fall of Nazism and WWII, and then prosper with the rebuilding of the country after the war. Despite the films sweeping scope of history, the tone is intimate as Reitz pays attention to the smallest details of daily life--for it is those moment that are the most memorable in retrospect.
Heimat isn't just (just!) a great motion picture--it's one of the richest, most deeply satisfying life-experiences the movies ever afforded. Conceived for West German television and divided into 11 feature-length chapters, Edgar Reitz's film begins in 1919 with the return of a soldier from the Great War to his hometown of Schabbach, in the northwestern corner of Germany, a rural region known as the Hunsrück. It will end some 16 hours (in screen time) and 63 years later, having refracted the history of modern Germany through the experiences of the people--especially, but by no means exclusively, one extended family, the Simons--living in and connected to that village. Not that the film unreels as a didactic history lesson. We come to know intimately dozens of sharply imagined characters whose lives, personalities, and allegiances shift and deepen across a broad expanse of time and event. Reitz and co-writer Peter Steinbach never force these characters into unnatural dramatic or symbolic poses. Some of the most telling truths emerge out of the corner of one's eye, as it were, from the patient accumulation of unobtrusive yet heartbreakingly beautiful detail. Few films have held the particular and the universal in such eloquent equipoise.
To cite just one example: On an evening in 1924, a German-American flyer sets his small plane down in a field near Schabbach. The following day, as he prepares to continue his journey, he invites Paul (the returning warrior) up for a brief spin, and there's an almost metaphysical thrill to the moment: thanks to the new technological wonder of the aeroplane, Paul is about to see his village as no native ever has, and Schabbach is about to be placed in relation to the rest of the universe as it has never been placed before. They take off, and almost immediately, just when we expect a transcendent Big Moment, Paul's attention is diverted from the panorama by the sight of a dark woman wheeling a baby carriage along a country road. He thinks he knows who it is--someone who has caught his imagination and led him to dream of an alternative destiny for himself. Down!, he urges the pilot. Yet returned to home ground, running after the woman as the plane takes off again in the background to disappear forever, he discovers it's not the woman he thought it was after all. And so two Big Moments have slipped away, and life goes ineluctably on.
So does history, though the citizens of Schabbach see very little of History directly. The Führer who seizes the imagination of some and implicates all in his vision remains a voice on the radio, a face in a frame on the wall. Even when one of the Simons visits Berlin as a low-level Nazi Party apparatchik, neither he nor the camera investigates the glow of a torchlight rally outside the window of the room where he makes love to his future wife. By the same token, the America toward which some members of the Simon family yearn is only a carefully memorized and recited postal address and, for one character who does get there, the Statue of Liberty glimpsed through the one pane in a window whose other panes have been blocked.
Heimat means homeland, and the homeland or heartland film was a national genre encouraged by Propaganda Minister Goebbels during the Hitler years (at one point two of the characters in Heimat go to see another movie called Heimat!). Reitz's film, so free of anything resembling melodrama, adopts a plain, unhurried visual approach that could almost be mistaken for documentary; yet it's a subtly stylized experience from beginning to end, with its interlayering of glowing color and pearly monochrome (sometimes within a single scene), epic detachment and discreet intimacy. The storytelling, too, is subtle, true to the rhythms of real life: characters who seem key to the narrative drift out of it never to be seen again, or perhaps to return, all but unrecognizable, years later; other characters who seem minor and incidental may come to assume remarkable significance and poignancy. Throughout, Marita Breuer as Maria, a young, lovely bride who becomes a matriarch by default, limns a character of quiet dignity and authority who remains the heart of the film, and of Schabbach, even after she has passed away. This film constitutes a definition and celebration of the idea of community, of having and sharing a place in the world. And once you've experienced it, lived with it, you'll feel part of its community as well. --Richard T. Jameson