The veteran director, creator of the 56-hour Heimat Trilogy and one of the less-celebrated but key figures in the New German Cinema movement of the late 1960s and 1970s, has created a film that’s every bit as engaging as a great 19th century novel – although the film deals with people that don’t usually get a look in in Literature.
Heimat followed the fortunes of three intertwined families during the 20th Century. Die Andere Heimat follows the fortunes of one of those families through the hard times of the 1830s, 1840s and 1850s in the fictional town of Schabbach in the rural Hunsrück part of southwest Germany.
Scrawny blacksmith’s son Jakob (Schneider) is a big reader; he’s constantly skiving off helping at the forge, finding a dark corner and sticking his nose in a book. Which makes for trouble with blustery dad Johann (Kriese) and older brother Gustav (Scheidt). Times are hard after a series of failed harvests and the growing despotism of landlords; people are starting to leave the land in hope of finding a better life in the Americas.
Jakob has one special bookish interest: the indigenous cultures of South America, accounts of which have been brought back by intrepid travelers. Jakob dreams of leaving, like the others, to make a new start in a new world. But then miller’s daughter Jettchen (Bill) enters the picture.
Home from Home is a domestic drama and a love story; but don’t expect our conventional, idealistic notions of love to apply, as this is a time when and a place where love plays second fiddle to the harsh realities of life and circumstance. These grim realities are much in evidence: Reitz’s team built an accurate approximation of a period village within the boundaries of an existing hamlet and went to pains to dress people and sets to reflect that hardbitten era; the story develops as a series of tragedies and missed opportunities that are only slightly leavened by carnivalesque episodes.
Jakob’s bookish turn might be seen as a hubristic attempt at social- and self-improvement that is asking to be given a sound drudging by reality (as in Hardy’s Jude the Obscure); but here Jettchen, Jakob’s mother Margarethe (Breuer) and eventually Johann and Gustav come round to seeing the value of it all. Reitz seems intent on pointing out that a dreamer can motivate those around him or her; and that a writer is a worker too.
Given the claustrophobic lives and the domestic interiors in which they are lived out, it is slightly surprising that the film is shot in CinemaScope (although it IS black-and-white CinemaScope). Reitz points out that CinemaScope allows you to situate a character within a wider spatial environment; even in a close-up shot you can see both sides of the room Jakob is inhabiting. Thus the format allows the film maker to keep a real sense of the community of a village and the surrounding landscape in view at all times.
Reitz has also said that he wanted to give audiences the opportunity to experience the very different rhythm of life that existed in rural communities 160 years ago. I’m happy to report that, despite the long running time of the film, there’s nothing too challenging in the duration here. The story skips along, a bit like Hardy’s Jude the Obscure but without the melodramatic moments; or like Hardy crossed with Olmi’s The Tree of Wooden Clogs. Much moreso than almost any historical film I can think of (except perhaps Olmi’s), Home from Home stays credible in implementing its ‘staying close to life’ ethos.
Home from Home is both a damn good story and an exploration of the emotional conflicts facing emigrants. This is a film about the ties that both nurture and bind, those of family rather than those of homeland; in the face of which dreams threaten to remain dreams.
Review by Colin Dibben
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