Director Edgar Reitz’s first ‘Heimat’ film was shown on British television back in the 1980s to critical acclaim. It proved popular with audiences despite being set up for failure by virtue of having been shot in black and white in the German language with a story that was notably slow to unravel.
The latest instalment of Reitz’s Heimat series, a prequel to the first film and set in the 1840s, had its world premiere in Simmern, Hunsrueck on Saturday 28 September 2013. It was still being shown every afternoon to a capacity audience at the same cinema a month later, such is the local interest it has generated as once again Reitz filmed on location in the Hunsrueck using many local people to play the parts, ensuring the local dialect planted his story firmly in the region thus adding another layer of richness. The director filmed again chiefly in black and white with only sparse flashes of colour and included lots of shots of undulating fields, often showing caravans of carts laden to capacity, reminiscent of photographs of adventurers colonizing America’s Wild West and recalling the hardships they endured. Even the soundtrack in the opening scenes seems at odds with the location, let alone country – perhaps a variation on an old hymn, as successfully used in True Grit, would have served the film better.
The film’s main themes are the severe food shortages following several bad harvests and the lure of the Portuguese emperor’s offer of land and livestock in return for colonizing Brazil. It opens with the central character Jakob Simon, who has his head stuck into a book at every opportunity and is gifted in tribal languages. Jakob is the son of a smithy surviving on his trade and by working the land, and spends his time dreaming of going to far off lands. He cannot be made to help with the arduous tasks which, despite all the family’s efforts, bring scant food to the table. He is his mother’s favourite child and it is she who repeatedly saves him from his father’s wrath or gets him out of trouble. His brother is in contrast practical and is therefore favoured by his father.
The film runs to just under four hours and it was shown in two halves with a short interval at a convenient turning point in the film. The first half sets the scene and slowly introduces the characters with little in the way of plot or, seemingly, a point. One notable event is the death of Jakob’s uncle, another ally who hides Jakob’s books from his father’s destructive tendencies. Three ladies in the village get the task of cleaning the body, underlining how death is not separate from life in this community but another hard fact they have to be mentally and physically equipped to deal with.
While escaping another punishment by heading to his sister, who lives on the Mosel, Jakob stumbles upon the Portuguese emperor’s representatives drumming up business in a town square. Times are hard so many, who literally have nothing to lose, apply. Jakob takes a contract but before he can sign on the dotted line he is called back to his family and his chance of fulfilling his dream of foreign travel is put on hold.
Jakob is played by an actor somewhat akin to Zach Braff, all wide-eyed innocence. Given that Reitz likes to cast unknowns, I found the resemblance disconcerting. However, his other casting choices for the main leads were more successful. Once again he managed to spot the extraordinary in the ordinary, in particular the friends Jettchen and Florinchen. Jakob falls for Jettchen, who shows a genuine interest in the tribal languages he is studying. They seem to have a real connection but he is too shy to make a serious move. Florinchen is attracted to Jakob’s brother. At the village’s harvest festival the band strikes up and dancing begins but, crippled with shyness and possibly feelings of inadequacy, Jakob declines to dance with Jettchen, who dances with his brother instead. In the heat of the moment, Jettchen falls for the wrong brother, thus betraying her friend and wounding Jakob, whose irrational reaction leads him to be captured and thrown into prison.
The first half of the film with its repeated examples of his mother’s and uncle’s devotion and his father’s violent reaction to his seeming laziness, is meandering and seems to go nowhere. Despite being beautifully shot and Reitz having successfully mined the Hunsrueck for beautiful locations not previously used, for a small minority of the audience this was not sufficiently engaging and they left.
The second half of the film is better paced and full of drama. The audience, who had been murmuring throughout the first half – commenting and, I’m guessing, pointing out people they know in the supporting cast – were quiet throughout. The twists and turns seemed true to such a hard life, with the odd flash of humour off-setting the emotional scenes. But, as his previous films, Reitz does not focus unnecessarily on human tragedy, just enough, producing another accessible film that is firmly rooted opposite American schmaltz on the story telling spectrum.
Reitz’s directorial flair goes up several gears in the second half. The cinematography is even more spectacular. There are some fabulous scenes with dramatic weather or lighting. A church choir provides the music which should have opened the film. The genius of Reitz is however that he later reveals how he has wrong footed the audience: near the end of the film Jakob’s brother-in-law starts playing a mournful harmonica while he waits for his wife, bringing back to mind the music that opened the film, thus making sense of his choice.
The film, when done in one sitting, is 30-45 minutes too long but it is in the first two hours in which any cuts should have been made. There are repeated points at the end of the film at which it could end but instead crawls from one potential ending to the next. The appearance of Werner Herzog and Edgar Reitz in their cameos though is enough to reawaken interest. Their scenes are well conceived and are a charming nod from one director to another.
Die Andere Heimat is a marathon of a film with much to be endured BUT the audience is rewarded with the most spectacular shot scenes in the second half for their commitment. That’s if you stick around for the second half.
Note: it was hard to be entirely objective in my review. I have been visiting the Hunsrueck since the early 70s when my grandparents retired to the area. Their house is in the village next to the fictional Schabbach created for the latest Heimat film. After filming had completed in the summer of 2012, I visited Gehlweiler, the village Reitz had commandered and clad in false frontages. As film sets go, it was extensive and the attention to detail was stunning. They had shot the winter scenes last so all the houses and streets were dusted with paper snow. The smithy is the same ‘real’ building he used in the first Heimat film but the Romanesque church was an invention.
I was disappointed not to see more of the winter version of Schabbach in the film, calling to mind some oddities in the film. The scene in which Jakob and his brother fight is set in a late summer field made to look as if there are snow drifts which have not completely melted away. By chance, someone had told me that the years of poor harvest in the 19th century were due to a volcanic erruption which upset the weather patterns and it had made it snow one summer. Even with this knowledge the scene looked odd. As for Reitz’s choice of architecture for the church in Schabbach, I can only assume the director had done his research, yet, in some of the wide shots of fields another more modern church tower belonging to a distant village can be seen gleaming with paint. I can imagine though that Reitz is a purist who resists post-production trickery.
See the following youtube link for the film trailer:
See The Guardian article for more general information: