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.)
Maria and her nurturing, outspoken mother-in-law, Katharina, preside over the kitchen that is the literal heart of the film: that place to which one may always return without explanation and in full expectation of forgiveness. (Among all these extraordinary performances, 28-year-old Marita Bruer's more than 50-year span as Maria is the most moving.)
"Heimat's" sturdiness is shot through with shivers of invention, not the least of which is Reitz's use of color. It's hard at first to see Reitz's plan; then the suggestion begins to emerge that we see moments with heightened emotional meaning in color--sometimes even selective color. The side of an official Nazi car is a lacquered blood-red while everything else in the frame is black and white. A bedroom stove, stirred to give two absorbed lovers warmth at night, glows blue and orange against the black and white room. A young flying cadet throws a wedding bouquet down to his family in the village below and only the red carnations are in color, until the family picks up the flowers and color begins to seep, like their joy, into the scene. And as we come closer to the present, more and more whole sequences are in color.
In the early sections, symbolism runs strongly beneath the surface. The villagers' crazy search for gold nuggets in Shabboth's icy streams in the late 1920s is paralleled by the very real disappearance of gold and mounting inflation throughout the country. The arrival of a vicious marten that kills the family's prize chickens coincides with the arrival of fascism in the land. And certainly Maria and Glasisch Karl, the village's possibly divine fool, born (and to die) the same year, are symbolic counterpoints to one another.
As to what his film is about , Reitz's own words are what his film accomplishes: it is "about leaving and returning. About the respect one has for one's work and about living on credit. About mothers and sons. About fathers and how early morning light shines into a room. About summer clothes and uniforms. . . . About saying goodby and the key behind the window shutter. About brothels in Berlin and about falling in love the first time. About airplanes and chocolate. About bomb disposal units and discovering faith. . . . About the loaf of bread you hold up against your chest to slice. . . . About the hammer and the anvil. About the dawn of a new age and about grandmothers."
All of the film's elements are remarkable: Gernot Roll's cinematography, discreet yet lyric; Nikos Mamagakis' urgent and effective music (which includes a Messiaen-like modern composition supposedly created by one of the characters); the impeccable art direction and fine costume design (inexplicable only when a German who has left and made his fortune in Detroit appears in a Western hat and Texas-cut clothing). "Heimat's' actors form an amazing cadre, filling 28 central roles and 140 speaking parts. Most of them are professional. A few in key parts--the love-struck boy Hermann, the grandmother Katharina, Glasisch Karl, and the garrulous Pieritz--have no previous acting experience. The fact that this is imperceptible reflects Reitz's touch with his people.
Does "Heimat" really need to be this long? With the exception of the most autobiographical section, the love affair between Maria's 16-year-old son and a woman 11 years his senior, no scene or chapter is shaped a minute too long. The secure, measured pace with which Reitz investigates his characters lets us know their strengths and foibles as intimately as we would those of our own family members. And we need all the time he gives us before one character appears for the first time in his Nazi uniform. Well, we think, Eduard always was a weak damn fool. Others, younger and more malleable, embrace Nazism with a hunger that is terrifying. That not all of them have abandoned its principles at the war's end is another of Reitz's careful observations.
Championed by Filmex, "Heimat" was our finest . . . 15 hours and 32 minutes, yet it was almost a non-event among Los Angeles film lovers. If you missed it, count yourself bereft but not in the minority. Of the Four Star's 800 seats, a rough guess would be that something under two-thirds of the seats were filled.
Filmex had hoped to receive "Heimat" almost three weeks earlier, but according to Filmex artistic director Ken Wlaschin, Reitz was dissatisfied with the subtitling, recalled it to the lab and the film arrived in Los Angeles only the Tuesday before its Saturday screening. So instead of press-screening the entire film, only 3 1/2 hours were shown, hardly enough to give the shape of the complete work. And its public showing was the two days before the Academy Awards, not the most uncomplicated period for the serious Los Angeles film community.
"Heimat" may come back. It would be a scandal if it didn't because without a doubt there is a larger audience for experiences of this sort than turned out. It can only be hoped that we get a second chance at this "Nicholas Nickleby" of film experiences, a true milestone in cinema history.