‘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.

Paul is an egotist and a scientist. His element is the inhuman world of technology and disembodied sound. When he revisits Germany after the war his mother asks him how he’s managed in America with no family to help him: you learn to help yourself, answers Paul. He needs no one but himself. Even Appollonia, the outcast gypsy girl he seemed to love before Maria, he wouldn’t put before his radio. When she asks him to go away with her he refuses, because he cannot leave his radio for a woman; instead, he soon leaves a woman for his radio.

After Paul has gone, Maria brings up his sons in his mother’s house. For 12 years she never hears from him, but she goes on believing he’s alive. She shares with the Oma the pleasures and burdens of home – work, children, responsibility. Then in the late Thirties the first strangers come to Schabbach, to build the Hunsrücker Hohenstrasse – The Hunsrück Highway. Their engineer, Otto Wohlleben, lodges with the Simons, and Maria and Otto fall in love. At last there is happiness for Maria, for Otto is very different from Paul – warm and solid, a lover of women and home. Their affair is rooted in the house, in the kitchen: the night it begins Otto has broken his arm, and Maria feeds him like a child. Seeing them together, the Oma tells the Opa: ‘We must help Maria more. The girl needs more time for herself.’ But Maria and Otto get very little time. Like the radio operator he is, Paul, over there in America, seems to sense Maria slipping away from him, and he sends her a letter: he wants to see them all at home.

Maria lets Paul and his children reclaim her. She tells Otto he must go. But it is August 1939; without a certificate of Aryan origin Paul is not even allowed to land, and almost immediately war begins. Surely he would not have stayed anyway: but six more years of prosperity and safety for him, of war and poverty for Maria, divorce them for ever. Otto has gone, and Paul has not returned. Maria has lost them both. ‘Ich han’s alles falsch gemacht,’ she says: ‘I’ve done everything wrong.’ She was meant to be a wife, with her family around her, in their home. But 20th-century history has allowed her Paul for only four or five years, Otto for only one or two. In 1940 she gives birth to his son, Hermann: but Otto only sees Hermann once before he is killed defusing a bomb. Maria spends the rest of her life alone with her sons. Paul, who is a new kind of man, was born at the right time; Maria, who is the old kind of woman, was born out of hers.

And now the 20th century continues to work, in Maria’s sons. She herself nurtures in them the technical skills which will fit them in the modern world, but which may unfit them – as they did for Paul – for home. Anton, the elder, inherits Eduard’s old camera, and works in a film propaganda unit during the war. Like his father, he learns skills in war which will make his fortune after it; like his father too, he walks home at the end of it. But the world is much bigger now: where Paul had walked for six days from France, Anton walks for two years, over five thousand kilometres, from Russia back to the Hunsrück.

Despite these echoes, Anton is not all like Paul. Paul wanted to leave home: Anton had to leave, and his whole aim is to return. Throughout his long walk home he plans his future in Schabbach: he works out 19 patents for camera lenses, and when he gets home in 1947 he paces out the factory he’ll build in a field near his mother’s house. He builds the factory, and his own home beside it. Soon he is father not only to his own four children but to the whole village, employing hundreds of its young people. Paul’s ‘Simon Electric’ had to begin in the new world; Anton’s ‘Simon Optik’ brings the new world home.

In Maria’s second son, Ernst, the modern spirit takes a different turn. Ernst loves planes, and he becomes a pilot during the war. But like his mother he is born out of his time. If he were American, history would carry him: but Germany, as his ex-CO tells him after the war, no longer owns the air. Ernst is left with nothing but his own resources, and they are not enough. He becomes a black marketeer, then a rich girl’s husband. America has the future. Germany has only her past. And this past Ernst now strips and sells off. He sells the newly rich peasants hideous false claddings and fittings for their old homes; he carts away their old doors and windows, tables and cupboards, and sells them to make pub interiors in Dusseldorf. To Simon Electric and Simon Optik he adds Ernst Simon Spedition – Ernst Simon Removals – and drives up and down Otto’s highway, selling off his home and history.

Thus the new technical and exploitative world invades the old, natural homeliness of Schabbach. Powerful images of modernity and technology march across the screen from the beginning. First there is Paul’s radio, creeping into his mother’s house through an open window. Now comes the telephone and Schabbach is doubly connected to the world through the air. Then Otto and his men build the Hunsrück Highway, and Schabbach is connected to the world on the ground. But the god of all this connection is disconnection and war. Paul’s radio, Otto’s roads, Anton’s camera, Ernst’s aeroplanes: all were developed in and for war. Wilfried the SS man is the great user and champion of the telephone; and the new roads, the narrator Glasisch tells us, do not connect village to village but bunker to bunker. It was before the highway, when the village was a trap or a home, that if you went from Berlin to Paris you had to come through Schabbach – or so the men used to boast. The Hunsrück Highway is up on the hill; people merely pass by on it, and no one comes to Schabbach any more. This is evident, too, in what happens to Hermann when he grows up and becomes a world-famous composer. He goes from Berlin to Paris, but he only drops in at his mother’s house for a moment. It seems that technology connects everyone everywhere in the world: but that it also sets them apart.

These disconnecting modern connections began in the air and continued on the ground. An imagery of air and earth runs through the film, divided first between Maria’s lovers Paul and Otto, then between her sons Ernst and Anton. Through the air come Paul’s sound waves, and out of the air falls the first plane Schabbach ever sees, piloted by its first American. Ernst, as we’ve seen, wants to take over this element of air from his father. History keeps him out of it in the literal sense: but he remains a flyer – a seeker of detachment and freedom like Paul. And from his great height in the air Ernst despises Anton, the plodder, whose feet have never left the ground. ‘Pedestrian!’ he shouts at Anton: the attic of their mother’s house is too high for him, never mind the sky. But Anton is not interested in the air – except for Hunsrück air, which is perfect for the manufacture of lenses. He despises Ernst as a lightweight, and is proud to be a pedestrian. He gilds the boots in which he made his epic walk, and sets them on a pedestal in his courtyard – an absurd, pompous, touching memorial to the virtues of keeping your feet on the ground and heading for home.

In the end, we have to feel the film is on Anton’s side: the side of earth against air, home against world, closeness against distance. Ernst is a crook, Paul a monster, and both are empty; Anton, like Otto, is the good son, husband, father, employer. But Edgar Reitz is too humane and too good an observer to leave it at that. Anton has the faults of his virtues, and Ernst the virtues of his faults. This comes out most clearly in the ninth episode, ‘Hermännchen’, set in 1955. Anton is rich and secure; Ernst goes bankrupt and loses everything. Herman is 15. He is like Paul – different, restless; and like Paul he falls in love with an outsider. Hermann’s Appollonia is Klärchen, who came to Schabbach just after the war from no one knows where. In 1946 Maria took Klärchen into her home, but already loss and hardship had stiffened her love of family into wary protectiveness, and we feel that she has never liked or trusted her. By 1955 Hermann is all Maria has left; and possessively, demandingly, she tells him so. When she discovers the love between this favourite son and Klärchen – 11 years older, a stranger and intruder – Maria’s goodness and humanity disappear. She and Anton forbid the relationship, and hound and persecute Klärchen with almost unwatchable cruelty. We remember Schabbach’s cruelty to its first outsider, Appollonia; we remember the strange woman, probably a Jewess, whom Paul found murdered in the forest before he left home. Maria’s only other outburst of hate and fear came when the murdered woman’s clothes were brought to her, and she screamed that they were nothing to do with her. But perhaps they were. Perhaps she foresaw in the murdered Jewess not only the terrible murders Nazism would commit for a twisted love of Germany, but also the murder she herself would commit for love of Hermann. We never know what happens to Klärchen: but Maria and Anton blame her and destroy her as mercilessly as the Nazis blamed and destroyed the Jews. This is the dark side of closeness and community: that it can be so cruel to those outside it. The Oma was not like this. But through Appollonia and the murdered Jewess Heimat shows us that this dark side of love has always existed. And here the detached ones, the flyers who run away from the responsibilities of love, also escape its evils. In 1920, only Paul could love Appollonia; in 1955, only Ernst is free from the furious imperative of protecting the family. Unrestrained by loyalty or taboo, he can act more mercifully than his mother or brother. There are no villains and no heroes – or even heroines – in Heimat; everyone shares in error, and in disappointment.

Modern life offers the people of Heimat two mutually exclusive possibilities: home or world, love or freedom. Maria stays at home, Paul goes to America; Anton chooses home, Ernst chooses freedom. But neither way escapes either unhappiness or evil. Even Maria can be wrong and becomes more and more unhappy. She longs to see distant places, but never leaves Schabbach – not even for the nearby Ruhr. She sells her old cow to raise money to go to Florida, but all that happens is that she loses the cow. There is a terrible sadness about Maria’s life. Her lover Otto’s death is a senseless accident, and some of the sadness comes from things like that, which can happen. But more comes from things that have to happen. Her loss of Paul and her loss of Hermann are of this sort. She loves them both because they are special, but that is also why she loses them. She is, as Lucie says, ‘Eine Gute Seele’: a good soul, a brave, unselfish, hard-working woman. She lives the life she was made for as much as she can, but she gets little love in return. Anton’s wife Martha sums it up, when the family assembles from far and wide for Maria’s funeral: ‘While she was alive they all left her, now she is dead they all come back.’ That is what Reitz wants to say about his Heimat – about all our Heimats, and all our pasts: we do not appreciate them until they are dead and gone.

Maria suffers, then: those who choose home and human love open themselves to suffering. But what about the others, the fliers? Eduard has a line he repeats several times in the war episodes: ‘The flyers are the real heroes, they don’t suffer.’ Do the ‘flyers’ of Heimat suffer less than Maria? Surely not. The flyers suffer too, and they aren’t heroes either. Poor Eduard has got it wrong. Flyers may be free to play – briefly, like Ernst, or longer, like Paul with his sound systems and Hermann with his music. But as the Oma said, they will have to pay too: everyone has to pay. They pay with hard work, with the loss of dignity – above all, by being alone and afraid.

When Ernst’s plane crashes in 1945 he realises that he has always been afraid – much more afraid than his tame brother. He’s always been afraid of crashing; Anton, who has never left the ground, has never had that to fear. On the day of Maria’s funeral, in 1982, Ernst explains how a flyer feels at the end of a flight: it is just as Maria had felt at the end of a life of staying at home – the same regret for the road not taken, the same fear that ‘Ich han’s alles falsch gemacht.’

The two real flyers, Paul and Hermann, get much further away than Ernst ever does. Paul gets to the new world: ‘Detroit, USA, Postbox’, as Lucie and Glasisch repeat with awe. Hermann gets further still from Schabbach. When we first hear his music it is ultramodern, electronic, inhuman. Almost no one can understand it – especially not Maria, who listens to it grief-stricken, hearing how far away from home he’s gone. Ever since the end of his affair with Klärchen Hermann has become as detached as Paul from human love. They both travel the world, and live nowhere. They’ve made the same choices, and they’re happy in each other’s company. Hermann calls Paul ‘Daddy’. On the day of Maria’s funeral they have their first – and last – conversation that’s not about music or machines: they talk about Maria. Only now that she’s dead, says Hermann, do we realise how good it was when she was there, at home; we went all the way around the world, says Paul, and we never knew. They never knew that as long as Maria was alive they still had a home; they had abandoned it, but it had not abandoned them. But now that she is dead they can never go home again.

The truth of Heimat is that everybody suffers and everybody loses – stayers and flyers, givers and takers, good and bad alike. Lucie, an egotist like Paul, loses everything, her parents and her child, her villa, her looks, her husband. The last time we see her is at Maria’s 70th birthday party: as vulgar as ever, still grabbing her moments of outrageous pleasure, but old and lined, and sighing ‘Ach Maria, all this living, with all this dying ... ’ Anton, too, may lose everything, even the values inherited from his mother. He’s always tried to reconcile home and world by bringing the world home: but perhaps, like the sorcerer’s apprentice, he has tangled with powers too great for him. In the last episode he brings his mother ‘perfection in a box’: a colour television. But Maria will have none of it. Television, she tells him, is for people who want to die. Take it away, she says, and come and visit me more often. Poor Anton’s camera has become part of the alienating estranging modern world, connecting countries and continents but leaving members of the same family alone in their separate houses. First we had fernsprechen, the ‘distance speaking’ of the telephone; now we have ‘distance seeing’ Fernsehen, the German for television. But there is no such thing as distance loving or distance home.

And poor, solid, pompous, pedestrian Anton may be losing Simon Optik as well. He’s saved it once before, in the late Sixties, when a multinational wanted to buy it. Then he stood firmly on the ground of home, and said so in a wonderful speech. At least we know where home is, he told Martha, and she replied: ‘I was so afraid we would find ourselves with all that money, out on the street.’ But in 1982 Simon Optik is in trouble again, and this time Anton cannot save it by himself. He has to turn to the Government for a subsidy. We never learn if he succeeds, or if he, too, in the end – like Eduard and Lucie nearly forty years before – is to lose everything he has achieved. We cannot feel much hope. By the end of the film the whole world is turning away from itself in horror: young people brood on nuclear holocaust, old people on their memories of war. Anton himself is ill, perhaps dying of heart disease. And the speech he makes now sums up the meaning and tragedy of Heimat. He has always seen time, he says, moving from left to right across a screen, as the Germany Army marched in wartime newsreels. Left was the past, right was the future; and you marched from left to right, from past to future. But if he doesn’t get this grant, time will turn around, and his future will be on the left instead: his future will be in the past.

Ernst’s future has been in the past for twenty years, ever since he began selling it off in the Sixties. He realised that people want to go back in time instead of forward. He has a theory about this, which he tells Anton. Sight and hearing, he says, are sophisticated modern senses (and sight is Anton’s sense, hearing Paul’s and Hermann’s). But smell, says Ernst – smell is our oldest sense, and the closest to our subconscious. The subconscious and primitive are, in the film, our past: the Oma’s intuitions and superstitions, the dirt and smells of the time when people milked their own cows and slaughtered their own pigs. Modern Schabbach is healthy and clean – no more manure heaps, no more flies. So the children don’t die of diphtheria any more. But they don’t really live either. When Hermann and Klärchen first touch, a fly crawls on his face: later Wilfried’s pesticides have killed off all the flies and no one touches Hermann any more. But smell, Ernst discovers, can bring back some of the old closeness. He has a special spray made up, which smells like the inside of an old cupboard: ‘the smell of 1865’, he calls it. This he sprays all over the hideous new furniture he makes – and, without knowing why, people queue up to buy it. These are the same people who queued up in the Sixties to sell him their old furniture, with the real smell of 1865. They sold him the true past then, and now he sells them a false one in its place. That is the exchange we’ve made with our heritage: our homes for paper money.

Anton is so sure that Ernst means to sell off their mother’s house that he boards up the front door against him. But – as people often do in Heimat, and in life – he gets it wrong. Ernst is not the greatest thief of Schabbach’s history. We remember the empty trap, the thieving marten: the first and worst monster of modernity is Paul. With the money he’s made from the desertion of his own home and family in Europe, Paul has built substitute homes for his fellow wanderers in America: homes for the homeless, run by the Paul Simon Foundation. To the Paul Simon Foundation he now hands over Maria’s house: to be shipped to America with everything in it, a monument to a lost way of life – killed by himself, and the world he stands for.

This is the final irony of Heimat: that the plaque of historical preservation should be hammered onto Maria’s house by Paul, who’d run away from it half a century before Paul’s three sons stand there bemused, and his rapacious energy dwarfs them all. Paul is the only one in the film – except perhaps Lucie? – who would do it all over again, in exactly the same way. He’s like life itself – not good, not nice, not fun, but you want it anyway. You can’t feel at the end of Heimat that there is any rational ground for optimism about the modern world: yet Paul’s laughter rings in your ears.

Heimat has all along been about art as well as life: about its own recording and commenting. And it has debated all along the role of the recorder and commentator. Eduard, with his camera, is a recorder, Otto’s assistant Pieritz is a commentator, and both stand a little outside life, like jesters or fools. Glasisch, our narrator, is even more of an outsider. He is illegitimate; he has disfiguring scabs on his hands. As time goes on, he becomes more and more the village idiot, tolerated but mocked. Yet he is the one who knows all the secrets of Schabbach, who remembers and understands everything, including even Hermann’s music. As one of the two main flyers, Hermann is, initially at least, the greatest outsider of all. He has left his home in anger and hate, and the inhumanity of his early work reflects his desire to get as far away as possible from the mess and hurt of human feeling. But the film has already explored the connection between art and inhumanity – in Anton’s propaganda unit during the war, where we saw a running battle between the unit commander and his assistant. The assistant, Gschrey, insists on remaining beside the other soldiers under fire, while when the commander is called on to film the shooting of some partisans, he ignores them and trails a branch delicately across his lens, murmuring: ‘This is art.’ But of course it’s only propaganda: Gschrey is clearly the better man, and the better artist. Even his avant-garde colleagues condemn Hermann’s early music as inhuman, though it wasn’t as inhuman as they supposed, for Glasisch could hear in it the birds and streams of the Hunsrück. But when he comes to Schabbach for Maria’s funeral, and sees his home for the first time with love and grief, Hermann’s art is changed. He can now compose human music. He walks round the streets, and round the cemetery where all his family lie – just as Edgar Reitz must have walked round his own village on the day he conceived Heimat. In the cemetery an old man speaks to him in the Hunsrück dialect which he has almost forgotten. The old words come back to him, especially the names of the berries which the children pick and their mothers bottle, the berries the Oma took to the Ruhr: the wild cherries, the kneppersche, and the bilberries, the krieschele. Herman puts these old words to the music which he writes now, and which his choir sings in the perfect acoustics of the mine below Schabbach.