At 925 minutes, Edgar Reitz’s Heimat – A Chronicle of Germany stands as one of the most ambitious television productions ever made. This 15 and a half-hour monolith was filmed over two years with a huge cast and covers German history from 1919 through to 1982.
Beginning during the immediate aftermath of WWI, the series begins with the return of Paul Simon (Michael Lesch, later Dieter Schaad) to his rural home, the small town of Schabbach in the Rhineland. Paul has been released from a French prisoner of war camp, still suffering from the effects of the war.
Paul is soon at odds with the conservative views of the townspeople, deciding to pursue his interest in radio communications rather than continue in his father’s footsteps and go into blacksmithing. As well as this, he begins an affair with Apollonia (Marliese Assmann), a maid in the local inn, a suspected gypsy because of her black hair. The townspeople also believe that she has had an abortion and frequently investigate the surrounding area. Though they are clearly in love, Paul is too afraid to elope with her and, instead, marries Maria (Marita Breuer), the daughter of the local Mayor, Alois (Johannes Lobewein).
Years later, with two sons, Anton and Ernst (respectively, Rolf Roth and Ingo Hoffmann, and later, Mathias Kniesbeck and Michael Kausch), by Maria, Paul comes across the naked body of the dead woman in the forest. The discovery is a scandal in the town, though it doesn’t last for long. Not long afterwards, Paul goes for a beer and disappears from Schabbach…
Above is a brief description of the first episode of the 11-part series, covering the years 1919 to 1929, which does little to show the breadth of this series. In total, the series follows three families – the Simons, the Wiegands and the Schirmers – creating a vast tapestry of a small village growing into a bustling town, crowded with people and running through many decades. In fact, possibly the most fascinating thing about the series is watching the growth of Schabbach, which goes from being small, cut-off and extremely rural to busy, modern and ever expanding. The house of the Simons remains recognisable despite the modern trappings that surround it, the forge beside it surpassing the years despite the homegrown industry becoming an anachronism.
It is difficult to find a main character in the series, as each episode shifts or expands its focus. In the first episode, Schabbach is antiquated and suffocating, as seen through Paul’s eyes, though, in subsequent episodes, it will become a haven from the modern world and a place of beauty. Similarly, there is no apparent authorial presence throughout the series. One episode may be about forbidden love and teenage angst only for the next one, set years later, to be about loss and regret over past mistakes. Reitz, either as director or co-writer, does not judge, something that can either feel authentic or unsettling depending on your outlook when the series tackles the Nazis. Reitz is interested only in presenting a portrait of a town and its people in the process of transition as the years pass. Hence, one character may appear ruthless, even demonic, in one episode and sad, pathetic or funny in another.
The final episode, by way of a conclusion, presents all of its surviving characters feeling the quick passing of the years. The deaths of the past generation weigh heavily on them, as well as on us as most of them would have featured prominently in the first half of the series. Ultimately, an awkward and unconvincing impressionistic ending notwithstanding, the series is a tribute to life; it’s unexpectedness and the wisdom and memories you gain throughout its duration.
Good as the series is as drama, it is also a fascinating tribute to filmmaking. The series is filled with lyrical but probing tracking shots that recall the work of Tarkovsky. There are several interludes throughout the series, some more successful than others, which add a type of eerie poetry to the series, making it more than just an average, everyday soap opera. Reitz gets a lot from the simple image of a coffin abandoned on the road during a storm or a sheet hovering over a war memorial following its unveiling.
Heimat – A Chronicle of Germany is a massive summing-up of the German Heimat genre, nostalgic films set in rural landscapes and usually following a family, and a likely attempt to reclaim the genre from the Nazi propaganda with which it became associated. Mirroring Werner Herzog’s attempt to bridge the gap between the German cinema of the 1920s with the present (then the 1970s and the 1980s) with his remake of Nosferatu, Heimat – A Chronicle of Germany tries to re-map the history of German cinema, a glossing over of the Nazi propaganda films of the 1930s and the 1940s. Whether you agree with this approach or not, the series does remain a powerful and frequently riveting drama. As a side note, quite why the series jumps between black and white and colour and back again is anyone’s guess.
Despite a difficult and fiercely televisual score, Heimat – A Chronicle of Germany is a great series. Each episode adds to the entire project, which covers 63 years and features 140 speaking parts. Played out in front of you are the lives of several characters, their highs and lows, their births and deaths all within the constant growth of the town of Schabbach. The length of the series, far from becoming an endurance, becomes a necessary part of what makes the series work. With no major plot or authorial voice, the series unravels and complicates itself much like life. The series is also packed with great performances and, thanks to great make-up, the cast visibly age in front of you – making it a series as dramatic as it is melancholic.