Edgar Reitz’s powerful chronicle of 19th Century German history privileges the small narratives of ordinary folk.
Edgar Reitz’s magnificent Home from Home: Chronicle of a Vision takes the template from the megalith that is his Heimat series, and looks at ordinary lives being shaped and shaping the social climate around them. Having never seen Heimat before, Home from Home doesn’t require any knowledge of Heimat for it to resonate. Whereas Heimat looked at the lives in a small German town during the dramatic German 20th Century, Home from Home acts as a prequel to those events and focuses on the Simon family (the ancestors of the Simon family in the Heimat series) in the early 1840s. Reitz’s version of history isn’t one of grand narratives and dominant personalities—there’s no Bismarck or Marx or Hegel—but ordinary people who were just as vital in creating the Germany of today.
The film’s primary focus is Jakob Simon, a gangly dreamer who clashes with his blacksmith father over his love of books and aversion to work. He is obsessed with going to Brazil and pronounces that one day he will go, armed with nothing but knowledge, to explore the Amazon and make his mark. Reitz presents things not quite working out as planned: essentially, to use a cliché, he shows life happening while his characters are busy making plans.
The four hours pass by in a flash. Rich observations of character and incident carry the story, and the small triumphs and disasters are shown to have massive consequences. After all, the entire Heimat series would have been entirely different were it not for the small decisions that are depicted in Home from Home. Reitz suggests turning points in life are far more banal than typically presented in fiction, and that moments of great resonance are only so with the benefit of hindsight. Yet despite the episodic nature of the narrative, there are echoes and repetitions: at the end when the emigrants carry all of their belongings in the wagon (armed with everything except knowledge), shared memories such as “Amazonian phrases” being repeated in different contexts, or characters (futilely) seeking the stability of certain important locations to make sense of the changes in their lives.
Reitz doesn’t complicate his story too much formally. The film is shot in crisp black and white, with considerable movement and a lyrical pastoral lens. The one thing that breaks the unfussy approach is the occasional visual punctuation of colour. This tactic, though not particularly enlightening, gives us symbols that hint at a future explosiveness and/or resonance (both nationally and individually).
Reitz shows his participants being firmly of the time, but also shaping, in their own small way, the monumental changes to come. The film is set in a time of considerable social change and his characters are clearly affected by them, perhaps without really knowing the significance. The fictional town of Schabbach in the Rhineland is firmly within the Prussian Empire, yet there are signs of the German unification to come within a generation (the use of colour in the students’ flag, for example). The young people are outward looking, wanting to explore the wider world, and many are considering leaving to places such as South Brazil to start afresh. (This in many respects matches the similar processes that would take place in Scotland, Ireland, and England with New Zealand and Australia, and which would also happen in Germany with the mass immigration to the United States at the end of the 19th Century). This was also the time of the urban shift, as the Industrial Revolution, and the Agricultural Revolution before it, reconfigured the nature of rural living. Jakob is a product of the Enlightenment, in which knowledge had been somewhat democratised, allowing a poor blacksmith’s son being able to study linguistics in his spare time, while the older people in his life don’t have the ability to read. The reason for many characters wanting to leave is clear: sheer arbitrariness from relying on the seasons and the nobility, economic deprivation, and with things such as infant mortality and illnesses being so dominant, life was tenuous. Yet, as Reitz shows, the nature of home and belonging is a complicated one. Leaving it isn’t so easy.
The physical setting is also important—the film is set a mere four years before the conflagration that was the 1848 Revolution (to use a contemporary parallel, the Arab Spring of its day), and also the time that Karl Marx wrote The Communist Manifesto. The Revolution started following discontent with the aristocracy and severe limitations on freedom. The 1848 Revolution, Marx, and the quest for German reunification also primarily originated from the Rhineland. Home from Home hints at the frustration of ordinary people, the seeds of conflict, the likely participants, and the immense historical changes that were about to occur.
Reitz’s depictions, however, aren’t firmly of the past. The echoes are evident and indeed resonant today. The second part of the screening opened with a new aristocratic ordinance being read out, which declared monopolies for the aristocracy over various primary produce (including, laughably, grass and stones). While the short-sightedness of this pronouncement had an obvious effect with 1848, this was also the time that capitalism was starting to come to terms with preserving property rights and setting up company structures to deal with raw materials. Reitz slyly suggests the same issues are happening now: resources are being hoarded by companies, who claim and enforce “hereditary” rights to everyday staples. Reitz also presents the difference between the haves and the have nots, and how it leads to structural inequality, suppression of rights, and arbitrary treatment by the justice system. For example, Jakob’s arrest comes from a mere moment of drunken fervour yet leads to deadening consequences (and all he would have needed to do to get out was to bribe the guards). Germany in contemporary times has also been forced to look outwards economically. Whether Reitz suggests revolution or mass emigration is likely to happen is another issue, but he notes that ordinary folk are affected when social upheaval occurs. There’s also a powerful emotional quality to Reitz’s use of ‘small’ narratives. Reitz suggests that we ignore these narratives to our considerable detriment. But even more importantly, they’re anything but small.