‘Heimat’ and History

Carole Angier

Edgar Reitz’s Heimat is not just a brilliant film about Germany. It is a brilliant film about our time, anywhere – perhaps about any time anywhere. The war between continuity and change, staying at home and leaving home, is part of the human condition. This war is the true subject of Reitz’s huge and absorbing masterpiece. It begins in 1919, when Europe has destroyed itself and the future is moving to the new world, America. The old world, essentially unchanged for centuries, has just died, and Heimat is an elegy for a way of life which no one has properly valued until it was over.

In the very first scene Paul Simon comes home from the war to his village, Schabbach in the Hunsrück. Neither his father’s forge nor his mother’s kitchen has changed for a hundred years; soon his mother will boil Easter eggs for his sons in the same way her own grandmother had done. ‘Children need such things,’ she says. Paul’s mother is ‘Oma’ – grandmother – to everyone we come to know in the film. She has never been further from home than the Ruhr, where her brother lives. Regularly she walks the thirty miles to the nearest railway station to go and visit his family, on her back an enormous basket of the year’s pickling and preserving.

She is superstitious and ignorant, she believes in the Evil Eye, her kitchen is full of flies. But her house is home to the whole village, and her goodness is unshakable. She will recognise Schabbach’s fanatical Nazi for what he is, a coward and a bully, and she will say so; she will see that Hitler’s new age of prosperity is a dangerous lie, and she will say that too. It is all borrowed money and borrowed time, and one day the debts will have to be paid.

The Oma has three children, all born around 1900, and all embodying key aspects of the new century. Eduard, the eldest, is a kind of bridge between the old and new ages. At heart he is an old-fashioned country boy, innocent and ambitionless. But in the Thirties he marries Lucie. Lucie is completely modern: urban and corrupt, craving wealth, position and excitement. She propels Eduard into the 20th century – into the Nazi Party, into the mayorship of a nearby town, into a huge, ornate, empty new house.

Politics is the aspect of modernity which Heimat sees as the most immoral. During the Thirties and Forties, of course, politics means Nazism, and even in Schabbach that means theft (the cancelling of debts by decree), slavery (the labour camp, only a few miles away), and murder (the Nazi Wilfried’s boasting of the final solution). But even before and after the Nazi period politics in Heimat is never a way of caring for others, but only a way of caring for oneself. At its worst, politics is Wilfried and his father, still pushing themselves forward in the Sixties, in the Farmers Union and the CDU. At its best, it is Eduard and Lucie.

Lucie is one of the great creations of Heimat. She is vulgar and greedy, a shameless egotist and opportunist. When we first meet her she is running a brothel. She marries Eduard because she imagines he is a rich landowner; when she cannot push him past the lowest rungs on the ladder of power, she transfers her attentions to Wilfried; when Germany loses the war she transfers them to the new lords, the ‘Amis’, the Americans. The high point of her life comes when she entertains Nazi top brass in her new villa: ‘der Rosenberg, der Frick und der Ley’ (all to be executed as war criminals at Nuremberg), who are to her Götter, she breathes, Götter. But Lucie is not a bad woman. She is good-humoured and good-hearted, and completely irrepressible. She loves her old parents, she even loves Eduard; she responds to goodness and to beauty. She’s vulgar and ignorant and a whore: but there are far worse things in Heimat than its whores.

Eduard resists Lucie’s worldly plans for him, sitting in his empty mayor’s office doing absolutely nothing. He’s weak and greedy; he falls for the get-rich-quick myth that there is gold in the local river, and at first he falls for the similar swindle of Hitler’s promise to cancel debts. But this doesn’t last long. His great moment comes in 1938, in one of the key scenes of the film. Despite Hitler’s laws, he says, debts must be paid. He wants to repay his Jewish banker; he wants nothing to happen to him. He wants nothing to happen to anyone. ‘Now is precisely the moment,’ he says, ‘when time should stand still. We should keep all we have achieved, and we should not want more.’ But poor Eduard is like the fisherman in the fairy-tale, whose wife keeps sending him back to the magic fish with more wishes: she and Germany both want more. In the end Eduard and Lucie do lose everything they have achieved, and must pay their debts in more than money, as the Oma foresaw.

Pauline, Eduard’s sister, pursues another empty modern promise: not power, but riches. She is a nice, ordinary girl who marries a nice, ordinary man. But corruption creeps up on her, through the hideous death’s head jewellery she sells without compunction to rich Nazis. When her husband is killed, he leaves behind only a box of worthless pre-war money, and all that Pauline can hand on to her children is more materialism. Her son ends up making even more money in the shop than his parents did, and all we know of her daughter when she grows up is that her husband drives a BMW.

It is Paul, however, the youngest of the Simons and the one with whom the film begins, who is the most important embodiment in Heimat of the spirit of the age. He is the film’s main puzzle and challenge. He marries its heroine, Maria – Wilfried’s sister, but the inheritress of the Oma’s values of tradition and home. And in the film’s central scene, from which everything else radiates and echoes, he leaves her. Why – why does Paul leave? Three times he is asked this question. Each time he gives the same reply: he doesn’t know. His legs walked by themselves, and his head was empty. But we know by the end why Paul left. He is carrying out a historical imperative. History is moving from Europe to America, and he must move with it. Paul is unfeeling, unthinking, hardly human, but – or rather, and – history is on his side.

Paul is a modern man from the start. In the war he has learnt the century’s first modern technology, radio, and from now on home is a trap to him. The family want him to go into his father’s forge. For centuries men have not been asked what they wanted to do; they have simply followed their fathers. That ends with Paul. One day he sets a trap for a marten, who has stolen the Simons’ best white hens. The next day he walks away, leaving Maria and their two small sons. Like the marten, he has stolen the family’s most precious possessions, and like the marten he escapes. When he has gone the camera shows us the empty trap.

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