Heimat (West Germany, 1984)

Directed by: Edgar Reitz. Again, I wanted to “do research” or get in a head space before a trip to Europe. My heroic completion of all 9 hours of Shoah wasn’t enough, so I also picked up this 15-hour TV miniseries just for fun—and apparently, what I saw wasn’t even the whole thing, they made a few follow-up sequels. Reading up on the basics—a huge story about a tiny German village from 1918 through the 1980’s—I figured it was basically German Roots. And if that seems a bit obscene to people in North America, I’m afraid it’s kind of an apt comparison, at least in the way this series presents itself to itself and its audience. It’s a very German version of the family chronicle story, as told through an established German genre, the Heimatfilm, which apparently accounts for the sentimentality, small-town virtues, simple worldview, etc. The result, from an outsider’s point of view, is kind of amazing. I was constantly fascinated by how this series depicted Germany and German-ness, and the navigation of the German experience through one of the most difficult and painful and awful periods of history of certainly any Western nation. What was fascinating was how bucolic and inoffensive and uneventful everything came across. This little fictional village Shabbach, in the Hunsrück, functioned as the perfect little cocoon, geographically kind of isolated in the extreme southwest of the country, it could be nominally believable that all of the craziness of the century had only a nominal impact on the fabric of this little village. Basically, as an outsider, I was very swept up in this because I like the whole idea, the slow unfolding of time, seeing the same characters get older, weathering the ups and downs of time, seeing modernity slowly penetrate this little village, the grandfather with his blacksmith shop, which falls into disuse after he dies, and his grandson starts a state-of-the-art glass and photo lens laboratory. All of that shit. But the whole Nazi period…you know? It’s kind of a huge, noticeable, dealbreaker, that this entire awful horror is kind of glided over, the worst of it is a kind of irritating, stick-in-the-mud character foil, the two uptight cousins, who look unfavourable compared to the nice old grandma who doesn’t really like these uptight new soldiers. But that’s kind of it. There are no Jewish neighbours who are horrifically abducted from their homes and murdered, kids and all. So to me, that was kind of a huge oversight, but really, a deliberate oversight because this whole genre is supposed to be really nice, really palatable, something you can sit with your grandparents on a Sunday afternoon and enjoy peacefully. It was just interesting that, even though every culture has this kind of Downton Abbey pablum, even Germany, who does better than most Western nations in facing their past atrocities, also gets to have this fully functioning amnesiac cultural product, and nobody really bats an eye. Although, devil’s advocate, maybe that’s no more obscene than any number of American and Canadian productions that would paint the same bucolic pastoral picture of the landscape, with no mention of slavery or the residential schools. So I guess…fair enough, Heimat.

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