Films about World War II continue to consider the atrocities, suffering, and associated guilt over the Third Reich. And yet, in movies like Saving Private Ryan, Enemy at the Gates, and The Pianist history is often rewritten by means of stereotypes, neglecting the agonies endured by most Germans and the cultural complexities that led to Nazism. And when a movie like Downfall does portray detailed, even sympathetic German characters, they it is met with controversy. It almost appears as if it is incorrect for Germans to talk about the misery they suffered as a consequence of Hitler’s regime.
In this context, Heimat: A Chronicle of Germany is a groundbreaking TV miniseries, first aired in 1984. As German writer/producer/director Edgar Reitz mentions in the informative booklet that accompanies Facets’ new DVD set, he was inspired after watching the American miniseries, Holocaust (Marvin J. Chomski, 1978), in which he saw “German history reduced to the level of fiction in an American film studio.” Accordingly, in Heimat Reitz gives a more earnest portrait of 20th-century Germany.
Heimat, roughly translated as “Homeland,” takes place in the small village of Schabbach and tells the story of the Simon family, from 1919 to 1982. From the Third Reich, to the economic boom in the 1950s and the resolution of the Cold War in the 1980s, three generations of the Simon clan live through the most decisive moments in modern German history. Rather than focus on well-known national leaders, the series looks at a modest family trying to cope with rapidly changing circumstances.
To convey these changes, the series takes on epic proportions. Running over 15 hours and featuring 32 leading actors and thousands of extras, it took more than five years to complete. Quite unfortunately, with the exception of the above-mentioned booklet and a brief onscreen introduction by Professor Marc Silberman from the University of Wisconsin, the DVD presentation lacks significant extra features.
Heimat opens in 1919 in nostalgic black and white, as narrator Karl Glasisch (Kurt Wagner) tells us that young Paul Simon (Michael Lesch) is returning to his home in Schabbach after fighting in World War I. When Paul catches sight of his father working in his blacksmith shop, the film turns to color for a brief moment. This visual device—switching from black and white to color—is repeated throughout the series, marking differences between memories and events.
The war has taken its toll on the impoverished village: most of the town’s men died in combat and survivors are permanently scarred. Such is the case of Karl, whose hands were severely burned during a mustard gas attack. Until his death in the 1980s, Karl remains unable to overcome his disfigurement. One could argue that, as the chronicler of Schabbach, Karl embodies “German history,” while his scars stand for a national shame.
His humiliation also parallels that felt by many Germans following the Treaty of Versailles, which established excessive reparations payments due to France and Britain. Trying to justify claims of payment difficulties to the rest of the world, the German treasury engineered a currency crisis that sank the country in a terrible economic depression. The resulting inflation destroyed the purchase power of the mark, which went from four marks to the dollar in 1914, to 130,000 million by the end of 1923. In Heimat, this distress is made visible in Schabbach’s depression. And the dangerous response appears in a monument to the fallen soldiers of Schabbach, dedicated as the mayor prays for a strong leader to bring back economic prosperity and political dignity to Germany.
Paul is himself deeply affected by the war. Working as a radio operator during the conflict, he discovered the many technological wonders not readily available in his hometown. And his deployment to the Western front made him aware of the larger world outside Schabbach. Now, he rejects his father’s legacy, and leaves town to find work in electronics. In Paul, Heimat demonstrates that war, for all its obvious costs, also expands and redefines national, educational, and cultural boundaries.
Paul’s departure leaves his wife Maria (Marita Breuer) with full responsibility for raising their two young children, and she becomes the most pivotal and sympathetic character in Heimat. (Her death brings Heimat to an end in 1982, the year Helmut Kohl, who would lead the reunification of Germany, became Chancellor of West Germany.) The series’ focus on German suffering includes racism, anti-Semitism and intolerance, as these prejudices only underline characters’ resentment and anger. In the pervasiveness of such feelings in the village, the series illustrates that racism was not a new ideology created by the Third Reich. Shortly after Paul returns to Schabbach, he falls in love with Apollonia (Marliese Assmann). However, the entire village despises her because, during the French military occupation of the region, she had an affair with an enemy soldier. Now she’s the target of gossip, as townsfolk try to justify her treacherous behavior by speculating that she is of gypsy origin because of her black, curly hair. Other abuses are specifically anti-Semitic: one worker (Jorg Hube) loses his job as a highway construction engineer when authorities learn his grandmother was Jewish. The only way for him to obtain an “Aryan certificate” is to serve during WWII as a bomb disposal engineer, an occupation that eventually claims his life.
The episodes that take place between 1932 throughout 1939, focus on the impact of Hitler’s “revolution.” Even as he destroyed all political opposition, murdered Jews, and rejected the Treaty of Versailles, he also restored German prosperity, and expanded the military into a principal symbol of national pride. As a result, the people of Schabbach make decent livings. During these affluent years, they can go to the cinema, have telephones, receive advanced medical treatment, and even buy expensive cars. Heimat here shows why Hitler was so beloved by many Germans during most of the 1930s. At the same time, the series shows how the highway constructed near Schabbach, once a symbol of economic and technological wealth, is eventually used to mobilize the German armed forces during World War II.
Candidly portraying the economic prosperity brought by Hitler’s regime to the humble people of Schabbach, Heimat questions the impartiality of traditional history texts, and highlights the complexities associated with racism. Heimat further complicates its political discourse by observing U.S. segregation of African Americans during World War II, and pointing out that this was not different from German intolerance ideologies. The first U.S. Army soldiers who arrive in Schabbach, spearheading the battle against Nazi forces, are African American. But in the following months, after the fall of Berlin and once combat operations are over, only white officers appear in town. The next black character we see the African American chauffeur who drives Paul’s limousine, when he returns “triumphant” from the states in 1948, a wealthy entrepreneur (now played by Dieter Schaad).
With such details, Heimat offers a new perspective of historical events, showing how they continue to haunt our present. As much as the series addresses broad historical events, it remains focused on the Simons’ lives, losses, and regrets.