Since 1984, Edgar Reitz has been tinkering away on his Heimat project, an attempt to chronicle 20th century German life through the ups and downs of one family, the fictional Simon clan. It’s an ongoing, epic people’s history, broadly comparable to what Our Friends in the North did in the UK and The Best of Youth did in Italy, although even those considerable narrative achievements start to look like flickerbooks when set against Reitz’s truly monumental undertaking. Thus far, the project has generated three full-length series (15 hours, 25 hours and 11 hours respectively) and a direct-to-DVD digest (2006’s Heimat Fragments: The Women). Now, with Home from Home, which retraces the Simons’ roots back to 19th century Rhineland, we get a prologue – the Better Call Saul to the earlier Heimats’ Breaking Bad, if you will, although this being arthouse prehistory, it brings in its origin story in black-and-white and at just shy of four hours long.
No prior knowledge is required, as chronologically this is a startpoint for everything that unfolded elsewhere, and Home from Home effectively distils the essence of those instalments into one single viewing session. Fans will immediately recognise the ominous mood, the mythic-romantic evocation of the German countryside, and Reitz’s couching of domesticity as both reflection of, and shelter from, the outside world. One newly pressing theme, however, is social aspiration: Reitz is showing how the Simons’ later, moneyed scions got up the hillside we last left them on. (A steam engine will play a crucial part.)
The chronicle of the title refers to a diary kept by Jakob (Jan Dieter Schneider, a Teutonic Michael Cera), a dreamy teenager who repeatedly shirks back-breaking manual labour to bury his head in books and a vision of the New World that looms only larger, and becomes ever more tangible, as members of his community strike out for America. Through him, Reitz pursues his interest in how each generation takes the previous one as a point of departure: how we reject our fathers’ wisdom, however sound, to go our own way, grow and hopefully evolve. The running time allows for a thoroughly immersive recreation of not just the period, but also those social strictures Jakob and his ilk were brushing up against. This rural backwater’s cramped and darkened homes are a feat of production design: credit Hucky Hornberger and the late Toni Gerg with providing Reitz with the most detailed arthouse universe to explore since Sokurov’s Faust.
Reitz spends his time here judiciously. A full minute of someone working a loom, or tilling the fields, demonstrates just what labour-intensive work this was; it’s no real surprise when key characters drop dead. Jakob’s elders seem wholly set in their ways, from a comically superstitious aunt to an old man who reportedly hasn’t spoken for twelve years. Conversely Jakob, with his wandering mind and restless legs, his openness to other cultures and his cries of “Long live Young Germany!”, and his practically minded brother Gustav (Maximilian Scheidt), who brings that steam engine to town, appear as avatars of hope and optimism.
Organising this project around them staves off the fustiness that gathered around Heimat 3, and keeps any dourness or bleakness at bay: what we’re absorbed by here is the process of enlightenment, a theme set up by an early exchange in which Jakob describes his brother’s uncanny ability to return home in the dark without stumbling into the region’s copious potholes – an example of an individual both adapting to and transcending his immediate environment, much as Jakob’s beloved native Americans learnt to navigate the forest at night.
Just as these characters search for signs and wonders, so too Gernot Roll’s cinematography highlights a half-dozen or so symbols – a horseshoe, a gold coin, a German flag; a comet, a seashell, cornflowers – in colour that pierces the monochrome and anticipates things to come. The result is that everyone – viewer included – is looking towards the light, and there’s something profoundly affecting in seeing Reitz’s young heroes getting both more experienced and palpably brighter in the act of lifting their feet out of the mud. The process obviously takes an unusual degree of time and commitment, but it’s clear from a very early stage that this is masterful storytelling, more than worthy of its much-admired predecessors: Reitz quickly establishes a horizon for all his characters to work towards, and then sets about carving out the myriad forked pathways that bring them closer to their place in the sun.
(MovieMail, April 2015)
Home from Home is available to view online here for the next month.