A friend recently asked me if I’d seen the classic German TV series Heimat. After replying with a somewhat dimwitted – “Huh? What?”, I had to admit to not even having heard of it. But when he added that it’s regarded very highly by film fans and critics alike and often reaches high places in numerous lists of The Greatest….etc etc, I was intrigued enough to seek it out.
Heimat (a German word that means Homeland) is actually a series of 32 films or rather episodes written and directed by Edgar Reitz. They depict life in Germany between the years of 1919 and 2000 as seen through the eyes of the Simon family from the Hunsrück region of the Rhineland and although the overall length of the 32 films is 53 and a half hours, making it one of the longest series of feature-length films in cinema history, for this review, I’m dealing with the first season only, which spans the years 1919 to 1982.
The first season of Heimat was originally broadcast in 1984 and consists of 11 episodes, centring on the character of Maria Simon (Marita Breuer), and her life in the small fictional village of Schabbach. We follow her from being a carefree teenager to a wizened, mentally scarred old matriarch and all the ups and downs that life throws at her along the way. At the beginning, it depicts a simple peasant life within a close-knit community where two and three generations often live under one roof and where everyone knows everyone else’s business. The village is filled with colourful characters, some loveable, some not, and we get to join them on their journey through the years as they deal with everything from domestic and personal issues to wider social and political events.
English subtitles notwithstanding, I found it very easy to immerse myself in the affairs of these people as they deal with love, loss, illness, gossip as well as the national matters that were occurring in Germany at the time. The scope of the filming never really strays far from the village and surrounding towns so the effects that these national upheavals have on the members of the community are depicted in very personal ways. I found it quite extraordinary to see the village itself slowly transform over the years as horses and carts give way to motorcycles and automobiles and as the coming of the telephone and the building of a highway change the local landscape. The costume department did a great job too, no mean feat when you’re talking about seven decades and numerous fashion styles.
The plot is far too comprehensive to go into here but as part kitchen-sink drama and part social/political commentary, it shows in wonderful detail how times changed for the people of this tiny rural community and as positive as progress is, one can’t help but feel a little rueful at the passing of certain things. “Once, we all lived under the same roof. Now we are spread around the world,” says a family member, aptly summing up the changes. Of course, spanning so many years, characters come and go, some die through old age, sickness or war and new characters are born who become fascinating to us a little further down the line. For the most part, the make-up to age the actors is terrific as is the acting. The look of the film is beautiful too with sweeping panoramas of the countryside and nicely lit interiors and the frequent switching between colour and black and white to heighten emotional conveyance adds to the overall ambience of the time.
A filmmaker from his early twenties, the director, Edgar Reitz was born in Morbach, Hunsrück in 1932 and so he knew the region and the people well. This is likely why there’s such a feeling of honesty about Heimat. If this wonderful piece of art is unknown to you as it was me, do yourself a favour and take the time to give it a look. It’s richly rewarding and definitely worth it.