Los Angeles may have lost "the CIVIL warS," Robert Wilson's nine-hour mega-epic in 1984, but it won hands down last weekend as the American launching-site for Edgar Reitz' 15 hour, 32 minute "Heimat," the triumph of Filmex and a prodigious achievement. With this astonishing film--realistic yet lyrical, deceptively simple, inventive, poetic and, above all, humanistic--Reitz, a little-known and previously underrated founding father of the New German cinema, slips almost without notice into his place as one the giants among film makers.
"Heimat" moves next to New York, for MOMA's New Directors, New Directions series, the reversal of the usual pattern. Los Angeles is too rarely the first stop for important film events; frequently we're in the overchurned publicity wake of New York releases when a film arrives. In this respect, "Heimat" marks a coming of age for Los Angeles. (About the positioning of its unveiling, more in a moment.)
Reitz, 52, co-author of his film with Peter Steinbach, is himself from the Hunsruck district of the German Rhineland. For this film, which began to form in his mind 15 years ago and took almost 5 1/2 years to complete, Reitz collected stories, fragments of family history, folk tales, songs, newsreels, old wives' tales, gossip and the historic and very real events of the day to give us the most intimate knowledge of life in a fictional German village in the Hunsruck between 1919 and 1982.
In building this multileveled portrait, Reitz has made a massive film, the least of whose considerations is its length. "Heimat" flies by. It is mesmerizing; most of all it makes its audience its accomplice--completely. The laughter you hear in the theater is affectionate, the tone reserved for indulgences within the family circle. And considering the time frame of the film and the historical mine fields that it traverses, that accomplishment is of the utmost importance.
The meanings of heimat are both simple and complex. The dictionary description: "home, native place, or homeland" needs enlarging to give it Reitz's meaning: "The distant and yet familiar world in which memories and their images in the mind's eye are one." Austrian novelist Robert Musil says that "everyone has a second heimat where all that one does is innocent and simple." It is also a true longing for home and all that evokes, a homesickness that is painful.
Hitler and the National Socialists cannily played upon a penny post-card view of heimat to build a strong Germany based on strong national feeling after what was seen to be the humiliation of Germany by the Versailles Treaty. (Reitz's camera, peering into village windows at Christmas in 1935, in the section titled "The Best Christmas Ever," walks a thin line between nostalgia and irony.)
In an interview in Germany with Bernd Eichinger, Reitz traced his need to build this monumental film to the reaction he had to the American TV miniseries "Holocaust," an event that for the first time tore away the wall of silence between young Germans and their parents and grandparents. "The series worked dramatically, emotionally . . . but I looked at all of it and I was so angry about a German story being told here, German lives, right down to the most dreadful things that happened, without one single image being really right. Without a smile, a word, a sentence spoken being projected in the way it must have happened in real life. I said to myself, one must put up something new against this film, a story moving one's feeling but where the images are right, too."
Down to the squarest horseshoe nail or the slate shingles on the family's house, "Heimat's" setting feels unquestionably real. The film makers lived in the small village of Woppenroth, between the Ruhr, the Rhine and the Maine, during the nearly two years the film was shot; its villagers are a necessary part of the story's fiber. What seems equally real emotionally is the film's treatment of the rise of National Socialism. Nazism doesn't march into this isolated village--a community that Americans in remote parts of Wisconsin, or Maine or Oregon might feel kinship for--it seeps in like ink bleeding into a blotter, staining some, changing them forever, leaving others mourning and bereft but essentially the same.
Our focus is Maria Simon, born in 1900, the family she marries into and how all its children grow up. Maria, whom we meet at 19, is the film's spiritual core and perhaps the personification of the village of Schabbach itself: warm, down-to-earth, calm, unchanging, deeply rooted and in some ways stifling. (The coziness of heimat may have its suffocating side as well. It may be what causes her husband, Paul Simon, 28, World War I survivor, dutiful husband and father of two sons, to walk up his main street bound for a beer, and simply not return.)