I was living in the boho suburb of Montpelier in Bristol when this German tele series was first broadcast on the BBC, an extraordinary 10 nights in a row, when local pubs were all but deserted.
The Brits are not known for their love of foreign language films, but they do like their war dramas, so perhaps the previous year’s ‘Das Boot’ about a German U Boat had paved the way.
I love the German language and for a time I could speak it well enough to pass as a native, though in the much maligned Schwabish dialect. But this series really represented a massive shift in the media’s tectonic plates.
Its director, Edgar Reitz, was inundated with letters from ordinary Germans who had been unable to talk about the war; his series allowed them to do so. Over the years I have met many young Germans who are utterly fed up with hearing about the Nazis, and the horrors of what went on before they were born. This series played a big part in allowing everyone to look at the events in a wider way, and to begin, at last, to move on.
It followed the life of a German family in a small village in the Rhineland, from 1919 -82. It was no aplogy for the Nazis, but a balanced, at times tragic, and funny, but always engaging story of ordinary people caught up in the great dramas of history.
At its centre was Maria who was born in 1900 so, as they stated, was the community’s calendar. She married Paul Simon who returned from the first world war with a fascination for radios, as a means of reaching out beyond this little world. One day he went off for a beer but never returned.
In his absence, Maria raised their two sons, and eventually fell in love with an engineer and bore him a son before he lost his life trying to defuse a bomb.
I recently got a chance to watch this series again, and if anything, better than I remembered. Now I can see it as not just entertainment, but also giving insights into history. I was also impressed at how Reitz captured the pettiness, occasional malice but also dry humour of small communities. There was a girl working in the local inn who was accused of killing her baby. The taunting became so intense the officials decided to search the inn’s cesspit. All they found was the motorbike of the much hated Hitler loving mayor. The culprit was of course never found.
Another incident – at the funeral of a couple who were visiting the town,the local ne’er do well spots a couple of strangers watching the funeral and asks them, ‘You’re not from round here, either, are you?” Cue the sound of duelling banjos.
I also became fascinated by Glasisch, the poor relation who returned from World War I with bad skin, so was treated by many as a leper. He was often ignored by the villagers, and taunted by children. But he was the narrator who shows the family photographs at the start of each episode to recap. And when Maria’s youngest son composed a piece of experimental music the village gathered at the in to listen. Glassich was captivated, the only one who could hear the trees and the birdsong in the music. And at Maria’s funeral, her husband – returned as an American millionaire, it was Gassisch who asked what nobody else ever had : why had Paul gone away. The camera focuses on the old Paul’s face, twisted in confusion. Even if there had been a reason at the time, after so long, after he had caused so much pain to his friends and family, there were no words. Some things are beyond words.
The final episode, which began with Maria’s funeral, is something else. I had to watch it twice to try to grapple with its bizarre genius. Maria had been the centre of so many people’s worlds, and in her death, everything spun out of control. The three sons, the conservative businessman, the pilot/black marketeer/ scam merchant and the musician are walking through the village during the fair, seemingly united, walking in unison, reminding me of the Gibb brothers singing ‘Staying Alive’. They are together, yet the years apart have made them further apart than ever. There are giant shadows on walls, drunken oompah band playing ‘show me the way to go home’ whilst revolving on a chair ride, a conga line drunkenly weaving through town, trying to get into a building that is full of the departed discussing their lives in single phrases.
This is not film. It has become so much more.
This is Pina Bausch dance at its best.
This is the strangest of surrealist performance.
This is real life and much more.
This is the genius of Reisz showing us a world falling apart, and it is also a celebration of things that matter, of where our hearts are.
The title Heimat just doesn’t really correspond to any English word.
It is home, it is homeland, a place we crave when we are away, that pulls us back whether we like i or not. It is a concept we all struggle with. And yet we would not be without it.