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Susan M. Schürer: Three Generations of Highs and Lows: Elevation and Emotion in Edgar Reitz’ Heimat

The highs and lows in the title of this article have a double meaning. They refer, first, to spatial elevation: high, as in up above, low, as in down below, and, second, to the human emotions that we refer to with those same designations, high, as in joyful, low, as in sorrowful. The purpose of this article is to draw attention to the use of physical elevation as a cinematographic technique to enhance the emotional highs and lows of the characters in Edgar Reitz’ sixteen-hour, 1984 mini-series, Heimat, and to suggest that his use of this technique must have been intentional. Moments of pure joy and sorrow stand out rather vividly in Heimat by virtue of their scarcity because the dominant mood of the three generations that revolve around the life of the main character, Maria, is neither joy nor sorrow, but rather apprehension and anxiety. Maria, born in 1900, lives through the First World War and its aftermath, the Weimar Republic, National Socialism, the Second World War, the economic pressures of the “Wirtschaftswunder,” the sixties, and the seventies before her death at age 82. In the midst of all this, she and her family and neighbors find little to celebrate and learn to take adversity in stride so that the few genuine highs and lows cannot help but catch the viewer's attention. To demonstrate Reitz’ technique of employing spatial elevation to enhance the aesthetic impact of these moments, this article will offer you the opportunity to play and study seven scenes from the film: three highs, three lows, and a final scene of remarkable synthesis.

But first a disclaimer: to discuss any individual scene of Heimat is a difficult proposition because Reitz, whose artistry is so reminiscent of Thomas Mann's, truly does weave a tapestry of images, metaphors, and symbols. Anyone who studies Reitz comes to respect his deft, subtle, and powerful use of these artistic means. Virtually every object and character included in the film carries meaning and messages that link to other objects, to other scenes, and to multiple ideas. Any scene may, therefore, spread its visual tentacles out in countless directions and might become the subject of an article of its own. Attempting to discuss seven of these individual scenes, then, almost necessitates a degree of superficiality; and for those who experience frustration or discomfort because of it, I offer two thoughts. First, remember that the stated purpose of this article is to draw attention to Reitz’ use of landscape to enhance emotional mood, not to explain the implications of each scene; second, if you have not found the sixteen leisure hours required to watch the series relax and appreciate these few scenes which, by themselves, will outline the plot for you. After this disclaimer, please allow me to proceed with the promised three scenes of joy, three of sorrow, and one of synthesis.

The first joyful occasion Heimat viewers observe is a picnic on a hill under the ruins of the castle Baldenau, one time home of the folk hero, Schinderhannes. Even the unenlightened viewer would have to recognize that Reitz has constructed this scene as a tableau, a painting in film; the viewer familiar with German cultural history will recognize immediately that a picnic under castle ruins alludes directly to the German romantic painter, Caspar David Friedrich right down to the Friederickean penchant for destroying his own romantic illusion, as the viewer will undoubtedly notice. This tableau, the longest uninterrupted scene in the entire series, coming at the very end of the first hour, has an enormous role to play in our viewing experience. First, it asks us to study what we see as we would study a large oil painting, to pause for extended reflection. Second, it warns us that the film is not merely about history, memory, and documentation. It is also about art and aesthetics. Third, the scene provides us an opportunity to study the characters in relationship to each other: their friendships, rivalries, sympathies, animosities, and their pecking order. There are the rich, poor, self-assured, timid, esteemed, and merely tolerated. Finally, the tableau signals the four major themes to come over the next fifteen hours: technology with its velocity and power to change life, perspective with its capriciousness and power to change life, and related to these two, the theme of the world upside down (die verkehrte Welt) nonsensical and threatening, and, lastly, the strain between the traditional and the modern, between folk wisdom and scientific knowledge.

Beyond this, the scene also has enormous significance for a discussion of joy and sorrow for it marks the happiest this group will ever be – up on their hill, enjoying the view and a live radio concert in the sunshine and fresh air. Never again will we see them all together so happy and carefree. But the narrator will recall this scene for us over and over again, reminding himself and us that these were the good times when they were “really happy.” One can say, in fact, that this is the only scene of unadulterated joy in Heimat.

Still, two more scenes link higher altitudes with joy, incomplete though it be. The second joyful occasion that we see is also a picnic on a hill, this time to celebrate a wedding. The headiness of the moment is reflected in a spectacular view that extends into the hazy distance. The happiness of the newlyweds is intensified beyond excitement over their recent nuptials; on her part because she mistakenly believes she has married a land baron with estates and field hands, on his part because he is returning home after a long time away and rediscovering his Heimat with his bride. He fairly bursts with the rapture of introducing her to his special memories, including most significantly for this discussion, “Knebbesche, Kriesele, Wede und Schläe,” varieties of locally grown cherries and berries. Do not underestimate their importance in this scene or in the series as a whole! “Knebbesche, Kriesele, Wede und Schläe” serve to link childhood memories with all their sweetness and bitterness to the sense of sight, smell and taste, and to the dialect, capturing a regionality of object and expression integral to the German concept of “Heimat.” This scene also brings us full circle to the site of that picnic under the Baldenau. But the rapture of this homecoming is short lived. Lucy will soon discover that she has married into the very family of field hands she had hoped to oversee; and Eduard seems strangely unaware of the fact that he has brought home to his family Berlin's most successful Madame. From the heady mood of their picnic on the hill, they come quickly to ground level. Reitz breaks from this scene to the back of a honey wagon spreading manure on the fields, and Eduard drives nervously by without acknowledging the honey-wagon driver, his very own father.

The third joyous occasion we encounter is a wedding ceremony itself, and the elevation of spirits comes this time not from a hilltop, for the wedding party is outside on the street, but from aerial flight. Flight, in light planes, military planes and jets, helicopters, and toy planes recurs throughout the Heimat series; flight and pilots are praised to adulation in numerous ways. In this instance, Maria's second son buzzes the Heimat on the occasion of his elder brother's wedding and drops flowers for the bride while the wedding party erupts into pure childish giddiness as they anticipate each pass. This surprise gesture saves what would otherwise have been a rather sad affair for the groom is on the Russian front and marrying in absentia. His family not only misses him, but fears for his life, the bride all the more so since she will soon give birth to his child. And Aunt Lucy, one-time Madame from Berlin, nags the bride incessantly for marrying outside of the church. These sobering details have placed the wedding party squarely at street level, but spirits soar as Ernst flies overhead. The closing of the scene exemplifies best the use of elevation to enhance mood. Pure joy is registered on the faces of three women as they gaze upwards: by Maria because she is proud of her son's accomplishments and his thoughtfulness for the family, by Lucy who can point out that everything good comes from above, and by the bride who appears genuinely thrilled with her marriage, with her new family, and the special honor bestowed upon her.

This wedding scene, happy as it is, suggests that street level in Heimat is the level for contending with life's realities. In the case of this young bride, the seriousness of her circumstances and those of her husband does not lead to tragedy. Her husband returns safely, and they start their new life as a family. However. Reitz also sets two moments of decision in the Heimat series that bring unending sorrow to the main character at street level. In both cases, the streets indicate not merely the level of the mood, but serve also as the conventional “road of life” in the journeys of young men in search of themselves. If you will recall, part one of episode one ended with the picnic at Baldenau, during which Maria had her eye on the young scientist, Paul. Part two of episode one ends with a scene , in which Paul realizes that he cannot make a life for himself in Schabbach, and that he must go elsewhere. His exposure to the wider world as a soldier in World War I has rendered the Heimat too constraining for him; his abundant intelligence and ego make him yearn for a place and career in which he can truly soar. And so, he leaves: his 23 year-old wife and two young sons, his brother, parents, and friends without a single word. He simply takes to his heels and does not contact them in any way for twelve years, after which his rare visits from Detroit, Michigan, home of his successful electronics firm, bring only disruption, intrusion, humiliation, and hard feelings.

The second low takes place over twenty years later on the same road over which Paul left town. This Hermann, Maria's third son, conceived by the lover she took years after Paul walked out of her life. It's the sixties now, how times have changed, and Hermann, Maria's passionate, moody, artistic son, has just discovered sex and love, in that order. In this scene he is disheveled, exhausted, late for high school, has missed the train, and has had an argument with his mother, who stood scowling over him as he hurriedly pulled on his clothes – to his great embarrassment of course. Hermann does not physically leave home in this scene as Paul did. But he leaves home emotionally. He turns his bicycle from the direction of school towards the object of his desire, and this moment of decision to pursue a love affair under his mother's roof with a woman twenty years his senior, a secretary in his brother's optics firm, makes him quickly the black sheep of the family. He and his mother become deadlocked in mutual loathing. He and his lover, herself already an outsider to the village, become social outcasts.

Reitz highlights their status as outcasts by shifting their love affair from Maria's house, to a pup tent in a field, and then ot an underground cave that the viewer has never seen before, an empty, cold, inhospitable place full of hard, sharp angles. The nature of the scene suggests flight and seclusion, Hermann's flight from family, school, society in general. But seclusion in this place can be of little solace to them as they realize when they are interrupted by the narrator of the story, Glasisch. Happy-go-lucky Glasisch, who spends his entire lifetime in the village has, nevertheless, always been treated as an outsider because he has no family, no profession, no money, no social position, nothing. For the first time, in this scene, they – and we – get a glimpse of his loneliness as he stumbles drunk deep into the interior of the cave. The look of surprise that Hermann and Sissy register upon seeing him in this place lingers heavily as they realize, not only how unhappy he is, but just how far down and out they, too, have come.

When Maria and her elder son run Sissy out of town and out of Hermann's life, he leaves the Heimat at age 18 for good. He does not return until well into his forties, seeing his mother only twice and fleetingly before her death. Her sorrow over losing this youngest and favorite child exceeds that of having lost her husband, and comes in her old age when she no longer has the resilience to bounce back as she did at 23. Because of this, the heroine of our story, once gracious, sweet, and good, takes to drinking and dies an embittered, old woman.

To summarize thus far, I have shown you three highs and three lows: two picnics and one wedding, two flights from home and one flight underground. In doing so, I have attempted to illuminate the cinematographic technique of using elevation to enhance mood with the strong implication that this correspondence represents an intentional decision on the part of the director. If the six scenes I have shown you do not suffice to convince you of this, consider now the conclusion of Reitz’ 16-hour epic.

In this conclusion Hermann has returned to the Heimat a well established composer and conductor of international acclaim, sure of himself, as original and daring as ever in his creativity, as radical and irreverent as ever socially. His new love is his half-brother's daughter (the same brother who ran his lover out of town twenty-year's earlier). The memories conjured up by a trip home for his mother's funeral and a brief return to the cave have inspired a new composition: a choral concert in the cave to be broadcast live on the radio.

This concert becomes a phenomenal synthesis of highs and lows. The lows derive, of course, from the concert's location in the cave, that same hard, cold place known only to outcasts, a place of loneliness, sadness, and loss. Now we see it cast in a bluish light, making it colder still, but somehow also ethereal, one might say cathedral-like, even reaching upwards as cathedrals do. Hermann is elevating this forgotten place with his music, voices singing at the top of their lungs, joyful notes sailing through the air to be carried up and out through the cables and wires to his director's booth on the road above, and further still on radio waves through the stratosphere. And what do the voices sing? Abstract, short utterances, isolated snapshots of the Heimat, and over and over again in the refrain “Knebbesche, Kriesele, Wede, und Schläe,” “Knebbesche, Kriesele, Wede und Schläe.” Hermann mixes memories, personal and shared, regional and universal, joyful and sorrowful into one great live Gesamtkunstwerk of the present that combines tradition and modernity, and that could not be of greater poignancy to the story itself. Of Maria’s three sons, the first sacrificed his own economic success in an effort to provide jobs in the Heimat. The second built a successful business by dismantling the Heimat literally board by board and reconstructing it in urban restaurants and bars. The third son, Maria’s bastard son, uses his distant memory of his Heimat to create something utterly unique in honor of that place, significantly, without changing it in any way.

This scene could not be of greater poignancy to the aesthetic dimension of the film. Hermann's artistic synthesis is that of Edgar Reitz himself. Like Hermann, Reitz left the Hunsrück region for thirty years and, upon returning, was motivated to create a huge work of art, the Heimat series. [1] In other words, the artist we see on the street between the highs and lows enjoying the grand finale is not just Hermann, but our director who has found some measure of balance and peace through artistic expression. It is, in fact, a rather unusual scene for its humility. After all, it is nothing more than a shot of a man in a production booth on a deserted road. Yet, it lingers for a dramatic length of time, allowing Reitz and us to savor his well deserved moment of accomplishment. To come full circle on the issue of artistic intent, this grand finale derives its tremendous power and beauty from its artistic synthesis, from the blending of highs and lows. Artistic synthesis cannot be achieved without first establishing clear distinctions between its component parts. Therefore, we must assume that the locations chosen for earlier scenes of joy and sorrow, which divided them so graphically in our minds, were chosen intentionally by the director.


[1] Anton Kaes, From Hitler to Heimat: the Return of History as Film. Harvard: Cambridge, 1989 164.

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