Heimat Review

This review contains some minor plot spoilers.

The majority of the action of Heimat (which translates as “Homeland”) takes place in the fictional village of Schabbach, in the Hunsrück region of Germany, close to the Luxembourg border. The story begins in 1919, as Paul Simon (Michael Lesch) returns home from the Great War. He’s expected to return to the family trade of blacksmithing, but wishes to pursue his interest in radio communications. Although he marries Maria Wiegand (Marita Breuer), the mayor’s daughter, and they have two sons, he still feels ill at ease. At the end of the first episode, he goes out for a beer and doesn’t come back. Although we know where he has gone – there’s a brief scene showing Paul at Ellis Island, New York in Episode Two – but his disappearance remains a mystery to the villagers for some years to come.

Heimat is many things. It’s a portrait of German life and the way it changes through much of the twentieth century. It’s an epic soap opera, which is not an insult in my book as it has the narrative drive and indelible characters of the best soaps. If you surrender to its grip, then the fifteen and a half hours will slip by effortlessly. All human life is here: tragedy, comedy, love and death, and those simple epiphanic moments of everyday life. Inevitably much of the story deals with the war years, and its fascinating to see the way this develops. There are casual disparaging remarks against Jews and gypsies early on, talk of Hitler in Berlin as the sort of strong leader Germany needs, the mayor’s son Wilfried Wiegand going away to become something big in the SS…and before you know it you see Nazi armbands everywhere you look. Watch this and ask yourself if this could ever happen again. It couldn’t, could it…?

Heimat was five years in the making, and premiered at the 1984 Munich Film Festival. It made its British debut at the same year’s London Film Festival before having a cinema release (in four parts) early in 1985. I missed the first BBC2 screening (in the present episodic format, over eleven consecutive nights) in 1986 due to being at University, but I saw the next showing (over eleven weeks on Saturday nights) the following year. Inevitably there are some longueurs (mostly in Episode 10 for me), but Heimat stands up well to a second viewing. Marita Breuer gives a luminous performance as Maria, ageing entirely convincingly from 19 to 82 during the serial, with the help of some of the most convincing makeup I’ve seen. (The actress was actually 27-29 during the eighteen months of production.) It’s hard to single out anyone’s performance as the acting is uniformly excellent, which is remarkable considering how few of the cast had any previous experience.

Although certain characters do take prominence (particularly Maria, as the story ends in 1982 with her death and funeral), Heimat is really an ensemble piece. In a way, the central character is the village itself and the way it changes over the years. A recurring theme is technology and communications and the effects they have. Early on, we see the first car and the first motorbike, the telephone, the building of the highway, the arrival of television. The other major theme is leaving and returning: frequently Reitz will aim his camera down a long road, with a character either walking away or approaching. Reitz’s direction doesn’t generally draw attention to itself (except in one respect which I’ll return to in a moment), but it’s precision itself, helped no end by Heidi Handorf’s editing. It’s never excessively fast-moving, but paced just right. Also a nod to Peter Sternbach, Reitz’s collaborator on the screenplay.

The third standout technical contribution is Gernot Roll’s camerawork. Heimat mixes black and white and colour throughout. Reitz has stated that he used colour to emphasise certain elements but otherwise there’s no pattern to it. (By the time he made the sequel, Die zweite Heimat (The Second Heimat), following Maria’s youngest son Hermann and his friends in Munich during the Sixties, he had settled on one. The Second Heimat mainly uses black and white for daytime scenes and colour for nighttime ones.) Reitz and Roll shoot individual shots in colour, sometimes whole scenes. There’s the occasional scene given the half-emphasis of sepia and a very few shots where an object is picked out in colour in an otherwise black and white frame. This technique, which would have needed black and white negative to be printed on colour stock, could have been unbearably selfconscious but it does work very well. Oddly enough, a short moment of colour when your eyes have accustomed themselves to black and white does have the effect of making the colour more vivid. Although I’m quite prepared to believe that the colour choices are largely intuitive certain patterns do occur. The wartime episodes are virtually all in black and white, using colour sparingly. On the other hand, the ninth and eleventh episodes reverse the pattern, being mostly in colour throughout, so that the scenes that are in black and white (tracing Hermann’s ill-fated affair with Klärchen in the former; flashbacks in the latter) stand out as a result.

The impact of Heimat worldwide, both in the cinema and on twenty-six countries’ television sets, was immense. It was voted one of the top fifty programmes shown on BBC2 in a poll for the station’s fortieth anniversary in 2004. The Second Heimat followed in 1992, comprising thirteen two-hour episodes. Heimat 3, which takes Hermann and his friends from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the end of the Millennium in six ninety-minute episodes, premieres on German TV at Christmas 2004. The BBC has a stake in it, so will presumably show it in due course. In the meantime, take this opportunity to visit or revisit a masterpiece of both cinema and television.


Heimat is presented on six DVDs as follows:

Disc One
1: Fernweh (The Call of Faraway Places) (119:18)
Disc Two
2: Die Mitte der Welt (The Centre of the World) (89:37)
3. Weihnacht wie noch nie (The Best Christmas Ever) (57:50)
Disc Three
4: Reichshöhenstrasse (The Highway) (58:19)
5: Auf und davon und zuruck (Up and Away and Back) (58:36)
6: Heimatfront (The Home Front) (58:37)
Disc Four
7: Die Liebe der Soldaten (Soldiers and Love) (58:36)
8: Der Amerikaner (The American) (102:02)
Disc Five
9: Hermännchen (Little Hermann) (138:25)
Disc Six
10: Die stolzen Jahre (The Proud Years) (82:08)
11: Das Fest der Lebenden und der Töten (The Feast of the Living and the Dead) (100:23)

A word on the packaging before anything else: Heimat is presented as a “book”. Inside are two three-disc digipaks and a book (which I will come to when I discuss extras). The DVDs are all encoded for Region 2 only.

Heimat is transferred in the correct ratio of 4:3, which you would expect for a TV production. (Its cinema release would have been in arthouse cinemas capable of showing Academy Ratio – certainly its London venue, Artificial Eye’s much-missed Lumiere cinema, was.) A look on the BBFC website shows that this DVD runs to the same time as the cinema version, which would normally indicate a dreaded NTSC-to-PAL standards conversion. However, it’s not as simple as that. For one thing, this version of Heimat is in the eleven-episode format, which includes summaries of the story so far from Glasisch (Kurt Wagner) for all the episodes except the first. As far as I’m aware these didn’t appear in the cinema version, and with the extra credits sequences could well make up the 37 minutes this would lose in PAL speed-up. On the other hand the film could have been shot at 25 fps originally, as it was designed for a PAL television showing. Certainly the transfer is a little soft in places, with some motion blur now and again. On the other hand the black and white sequences show good shadow detail, and the colour is rich. There is some artefacting. Once again this will depend on how forgiving your viewing device is: it looked generally fine on a 28” widescreen TV (shown in 4:3 mode of course), a little less so on a 19” PC monitor. For reasons given above, my final mark on picture quality will have to be provisional.

No problem at all with the sound, which is produced to professional TV standards, with dialogue, effects and music well mixed. It’s in mono, but none the worse for that.

The subtitles are optional. Dialogue is almost all in German, though Paul’s nurse in the final episode does speak some lines of English which aren’t subtitled. The hour-length episodes (3 to 7 inclusive) have eight chapter stops each, the other longer ones sixteen.

The only extra is a substantial one. Heimat: An Introduction is a 84-page book written by David Parkinson. To some extent it does the work of most DVD insert brochures, giving listings of chapters and of the cast and crew. Included too are episode synopses and a timeline of German history, and a biography and filmography for Edgar Reitz. However, Parkinson goes on to discuss the German tradition of the “Heimatfilm”, the importance of the setting to Reitz’s film, an account of the film’s making and a summary of the critical responses, ending with a brief account of the two sequels.

A RRP of £100 (certainly cheaper online) might sound expensive for six discs totalling fifteen and a half hours of viewing time. But as this is something you will likely wish to return to, then it’s worth the price.

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out of 10

Last updated: 30/05/2018 20:23:28

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