Karl Miller

I don’t expect to forget Edgar Reitz’s 11-part film Heimat, which ran like a river on BBC 2 in the early summer, and which tells the story of a family, and of a community, in the Hunsrück region of Germany over the years 1919 to 1982 – a long film for a long haul. Towards the end of that interval of time Reitz’s work became an object of hostility for the exhibitors of the German film industry: I gathered as much from an interesting Observer Profile, which also explained that, in making Heimat, this highbrow chose to ‘stick to hard facts’ and to ‘curb his “intellectuality” ’, directing it into a notebook, and which claimed that the film had restored a sense of the national past in delivering a tension between traditional ways and a ‘thrust for individual identity’ in the technological modern world. The Profile may have enlivened what I took to be a rather anaemic response to the film since it was first shown in cinemas in this country. My impression is that cinéastes shrank from it as from some sort of solid up-market soap opera, and that in being seen as unduly popular, it has failed to flourish. So much the worse, if so, for British audiences. Heimat strikes me as one of the most important events in the history of the cinema.

Much of its authenticity may derive from the fortunate, if not unflawed relationship – which could be called a further tension – between the author’s autobiography and ‘intellectuality’ and his concern for fact, the facts of the Hunsrück, whereby every last little thing, including the setting of an alarm clock, is made worth watching. Heimat has in it the departure of a young husband, the isolation of his grass widow, and then the departure of her son by another man. In the second departure – which is linked to a love affair of the son’s and to his espousal of the advanced art of electronic music – Reitz’s own experiences in the world are embodied. In the first departure, the father’s, which is completed by his return in the shape of an elderly and grisly German American, we may find, on the thrust, an individualism comparable to the son’s. Both departures are specific to the period in question, but they are also an ancient thing and a fairy-tale element, picturing the magical stranger, the outcast’s reward – which is equally, here, a punishment. In and around and over and under this are the coming and goings of the Hunsrück. The film is true to the life I remember from National Service after the war, to the Germany which had yielded to Hitler but which went on to take command of its defeat. It brought back the wrinkled tawny moon-faced old man who wanted to tell an enemy soldier on a train about the glocken he’d spent his life making, and would go making for as long as he could. The film records the rise of a mentality which would have sold that old man’s bells for scrap or hawked them as antiques: but it also has in it the spirit which enabled the country to keep going – a spirit not confined to the business community.

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