Having already spent 54 hours in front of our TV screen watching Edgar Reitz’s monumental trilogy Heimat (more, in fact, since we watched the first two series twice), last week his four-hour prequel, The Other Homeland: Chronicle of a Yearning), arrived on virtually unheralded on BBC4, four years after its German release. Exquisitely photographed in crystalline monochrome with natural performances by its actors, many of whom had no prior acting experience, this masterwork from Reitz is absorbing, lyrical, both epic and intimate.
While the first Heimat told of the Simon family in the fictional village of Schabbach in the Hunsrück area of the Rhineland from the end of the first world war to 1982, the second part, subtitled Leaving Home, focussed on Hermann Simon who leaves his rural home to be a student and gifted composer in Munich during the turbulent years of the 1960s. The third series, Chronicle of a Changing Time, traced Hermann’s story – and that of the Hunsrück – from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the start of the new millennium. Now Die Andere Heimat (The Other Homeland: Chronicle of a Yearning) takes us back to the early 1840s and the lives of two brothers – ancestors of the 20th century Simon family – and their dream of fleeing hunger and poverty in the Hunsrück by emigrating to Brazil.
From the perspective of this prequel, the overarching theme of Edgar Reitz’s epic saga becomes much clearer. The German concept of Heimat has more depth than the English idea of ‘home’, denoting how individuals are bound to their Heimat by their birth and childhood, language, and earliest experiences. Community and tradition are what defines an individual’s identity. But throughout the four series, Reitz reveals how Heimat may also be a place you want to leave.
Deliberately, it seems, Reitz is counterposing two linked German ideas: Heimweh and Fernweh. While Heimweh means homesickness, Fernweh is a yearning to be away from home, a desire to travel to faraway places. The tension between these two states of mind was evident in the second Heimat series, but it seems central to Die Andere Heimat. For during the period in which Reitz has set this film, tens of thousands of impoverished Hunsrückers were emigrating to Brazil.
Having been invaded and occupied by Napoleonic forces in 1792, then re-allocated to Prussia after 1815, the Hunsrück suffered, in the period covered by the film, from a series of freezing winters and poor harvests and food shortages, whilst the political ideals inflamed by the Napoleonic years were suppressed under the yoke of autocratic Prussian rule. Against this background, from the 1820s the Brazilian government sent emissaries to Germany to recruit colonists with the prospect of land and fortunes to be made. Many thousands in the Hunsrück seized the opportunity and migrated to Brazil.
As the film opens Jakob, son of the Schabbach blacksmith (played by Jan Dieter Schneider) is, as usual, away from the village and its labours, reading a book beneath a distant tree. He is a dreamer and a Romantic who has conceived a passionate desire to leave the daily grind of the smithy and emigrate to the promised land of Brazil. He learns everything he can about the people of Brazilian, even memorising phrases from a couple of the tribal languages. The book he is reading is Materische Reise in Brasilien (Picturesque Travel in Brazil) by Johann Rugendas, one of the most popular and influential 19th century documents about Brazil. (Rugendas would receive financial support for another project – to record pictorially the life and nature of Latin America – from explorer and naturalist Alexander Humboldt who turns up in Schabbach later in search of Jakob, the village autodidact, with whom he has been corresponding.)
If all this contextualisation makes Die Andere Heimat sound like a documentary, Reitz’s approach is quite the opposite. We barely glimpse the title of the book that Jakob is reading, and the political and social upheavals experienced by the Schabbach villagers are inferred rather than laboured. Instead, a lyrical tone is set by the sublime monochrome cinematography of Gernot Roll (who photographed the whole of the first series and the opening five episodes of the second). Roll captures the landscape and the changing seasons in the Hunsrück with the same attention to transient moments of light and shade as in a photograph of Anselm Adams.
In its televised form, Die Andere Heimat was shown in two parts, each over two hours long. While there was a more bucolic feel to the first part, in the second the mood darkened as a series of harsh winters and poor harvests brought famine and grinding poverty to the villages of the Hunsrück.
Reitz takes us back to the village of Schabbach, so familiar to viewers of the first Heimat, introducing characters some of whom are the ancestors of the Simon family of that first series. The village of the 1840s has been recreated with convincing attention to detail, believably reproducing the look of a Rhineland village scarcely changed from its medieval aspect.
The Simons are, as they will remain, the village blacksmiths: Johann and his kindly wife, Margarethe (who is played by the same Marita Breuer who was Maria, abandoned by Paul Simon in the very first episode when leaves to seek his fortune in America). They have two sons, sturdy, matter-of-fact Gustav (Maximilian Scheidt) and Jakob (Jan Dieter Schneider), who is ‘spurred by the promtings of his heart to explore the world.’
Schabbach has barely recovered from the Napoleonic Wars, still a living memory, and Prussian rule weighs heavily on farmers and labourers, many of whom see no escape from poverty except through emigration to the fabled riches of Brazil. A failed harvest followed by an especially harsh winter leaves the village devastated by hunger and death, portrayed in a haunting scene in which the villagers bring out their dead in a procession of mourners carrying crosses. There is another remarkable scene in which the villagers are lifting potatoes. With Margarethe stooping in the foreground, Gernot Roll replicates Van Gogh’s drawings of potato harvesters.
As always, Reitz slips in small contemporaneous details without elaborating them. So we hear that Jakob’s sister, Lena, has moved out of the village with her husband, due to the locals’ displeasure at her marrying a Protestant; a town-crier arrives in the village to declaim a proclamation by the local landowner that no fruits or wood for fuel are to be harvested from his land, nor animals grazed there; and while Jakob reads travellers’ tales of the Brazilian rain forest, the laden wagons of emigrants bound for the Americas trundle past the village fields.
As was particularly the case with the first Heimat, Reitz’s screenplay effortlessly draws us into the lives of its characters and their everyday struggles, rivalries, lovers’ trysts, and bonds of kinship. There’s a gentle rivalry between Jakob and his brother, Gustav over the beautiful Jettchen from the village down the road: whilst it’s Jakob who first courts her, it is Gustav who is forced to marry her; and it is Gustav who eventually does what Gustav has only dreamed of by signing the papers which will take him to Brazil with his wife and infant.
Their mother, Margarethe is ailing from lung disease (one of several links forward to the future and story lines in the first Heimat that Reitz makes with a light touch), and one of the film’s highlights is a scene in which she has been carried from the village to a windswept field full of cornflowers where she laments the six children she has lost as infants.
As in previous series, music plays a key part, in this case provided by a lively village troupe led by one of the most attractive characters, the irrepressible Florinchen (played by Philine Lembeck), who wields a mean bass saxophone in a brilliantly-realised scene, orchestrated by Reitz with a whirling dynamism, that depicts the local ‘smearcase’ fair (apparently celebrating a traditional cottage cheese).
The film is black and white throughout, though colour is used to highlight particular objects: a horseshoe hot from the smithy, a gold coin, a German flag, the blue cornflowers in the scene referred to earlier, and the appearance of the Great Comet of 1843, one of the most spectacular and brightest comets of the last few centuries. Some critics didn’t like this, but I thought the effect was used sparingly.
Werner Herzog turns up in a surprise cameo as the naturalist, linguist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt, with whom Jakob has been corresponding. Though this had the effect for an instant of breaking the immersive mood, it was a nice touch: as Reitz remarked in one interview, ‘It may look as if Werner and I have followed quite different paths: he was always travelling to the rainforests of South America, the north pole or the highest mountains. I, meanwhile, only moved within a small rural parameter. But at the end of the day, Schabbach and El Dorado are the same.’
At the heart of this film, another masterpiece from Reitz (who was in his eighties during production), is that tension between the attachment to home in Schabbach and the yearning for a mythical El Dorado – between Heimweh and Fernweh. I was reminded of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, ‘Questions of Travel’ in which she writes, ‘Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?’
Oh, must we dream our dreams
and have them, too?
While Jakob immerses himself in the landscape and languages of Brazil, the wagons carry impoverished Hunsrückers from their Heimat to another in Brazil. To see those wagons rolling out of the Rhineland made for a potent image when migration from other lands by similarly desperate people has become such a contentious subject in today’s Europe.