Home from Home: Chronicle of a Vision (Die andere Heimat: Chronik einer Sehnsucht): Venice Review

A four-hour plunge into rural Prussia and the hopes, dreams and misfortunes of a blacksmith's family.

German filmmaker Edgar Reitz's latest epic 'Heimat' project is a four-hour black-and-white film that looks at life in rural Schabbach in the mid-1800s.

Celebrated German auteur Edgar Reitz again returns to the fictional Hunsrueck village of Schabbach and the Simon family in Home from Home: Chronicle of a Vision (Die andere Heimat: Chronik einer Sehnsucht), though the events take place in the 19th rather than the 20th century, of which Reitz is one of the foremost German-language chroniclers.

Though in several ways related to the previous Heimat films, this beautifully shot black-and-white feature is accessible even for those unfamiliar with Reitz’s previous work. In its essence, it’s the story of a poor but knowledge-hungry son of a provincial blacksmith in the 1840s who dreams of emigrating to South America, though the almost four-hour film also offers a look at the protagonist’s extended family and their neighbors, acquaintances and lovers that again suggests much wider things about German (or, rather, pre-Germany Prussian) society as a whole.

Reitz has his fans and festivals should have no problems selling out houses for Home from Home, though theatrical action will again be hampered by the project’s super-sized running time, unless distributors want to release the film in two parts (it was shown in Venice as one feature but with the word “intermission” in the subtitles about 100 minutes into the 230-minute feature).

The protagonist of Home from Home is Jakob (newcomer Jan Dieter Schneider), a bookish lad who is one of the three children of Margarethe (Marita Breuer) and Johann Simon (Ruediger Kriese), the latter the blacksmith of Reitz's fictional Schabbach, in the hilly Hunsrueck region in the Rhineland in what is now the western part of Germany, near the border with Luxembourg.

Jakob’s sister, Lena (Melanie Fouche), has already moved out of the village to live with her husband (Martin Schleimer), a winegrower in the Moselle region, while there’s a gentle rivalry between Jakob and his older brother, Gustav (Maximilian Scheidt), though the latter is a more practical young man -- even when it comes to impregnating the beautiful Jettchen (Antonia Bill) from the village down the road, on whom Jakob has had his eye but whom Gustav’ll be forced to marry.

Through the many books he’s devoured, Jakob has become able to decipher texts in Spanish, French, English and Portuguese (a little suspension of disbelief is required here, since no school teacher or much study time ever seems to make an appearance, though education had become compulsory in Prussia by 1815; as in his other historical films, Reitz clearly picks and chooses what he wants to incorporate). Tales about the Amazon have Jakob’s special interest and his dream of making it to the New World and escaping the dreary and poverty-stricken village of his birth seem to inch closer when a Flemish man (Jeroen Perceval, from Cannes competition film Borgman) comes into a nearby town to look for men who’d be interested in emigrating to the Empire of Brazil.

This offers first Jakob and then also Gustav and Jettchen the possibility to look at their Heimat from the perspective of those who’re about to leave it behind. Though the second Heimat series, Leaving Home, followed one of the Simons to Munich in the 1960s, this is Reitz's first feature to thoroughly examine what the term home (one of the possible meanings of Heimat, which is often translated as “homeland”) still means if a person decides to pack up all his belongs and leave not only their village but their country of birth to start completely anew on the other side of the world. Much more than a specific place, the characters seem to hang on to a particular feeling of belonging to a family and community with its shared joys (weddings, babies...) and sorrows (illnesses, deaths...), something they paradoxically might quite easily find in Brazil as well.

Jakob’s pompous voice-over, read from his diary -- which sounds pretty much like what a young man who tries to imitate the great writers he reads would sound like -- helps guide the audience’s eyes, which is further aided by the work of regular Heimat cinematographer Gernot Roll, whose supple camera moves around Schabbach as if it had lived there all its life. Again, Roll and Reitz experiment with contrasting black-and-white footage with color, here by very occasionally giving small elements a dollop of pigmentation in the otherwise crisp monochrome visuals. It’s a gamble that doesn’t quite pay off, as it lends an artificial sheen to the proceedings and draws attention to matters that don't always have an obvious narrative value (one of the first things to show up in color is part of an interior wall, which turns out to be baby blue for no discernable reason).

Reitz’ sense of composition is often striking, however, with especially the landscapes with its placid rivers, abundant vineyards and solitary cherry trees lending the day-to-day activities of the poor characters an appropriate grandeur that suggests each single being has its role in the epic of their own lives. By contrast, the austere and dilapidated interiors of the late production designer Tony Gerg offer a grim visual reminder of the abject poverty of rural Prussia in the mid-1800s that was a direct cause of the mass emigration to other shores.

Acting, much of it in a mix of German and the Hunsrueckish dialect, is uniformly solid, with non-professional newcomer Schneider a true find. Filmmaker and occasional actor Werner Herzog has an amusing if somewhat distracting cameo as well-known naturalist, linguist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt.

The screenplay by Reitz and Gert Heidenreich also offers many of the actors at least one scene in which they can really shine, with highlights including Breuer's moving lament for the six brothers and sisters of Gustav and Jakob she lost, delivered on a windy field full of cornflowers, and several songs sung by Philine Lembeck, who plays a dear friend of Jettchen who's also practically folded into the Simon clan. The old-fashioned score is sometimes grating and too often used to glue the narrative's occasionally disparate parts together.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Out of Competition)
Production companies:
Edgar Reitz Filmproduktion, Les Films du Losange, ARD Degeto, BR, WDR, Arte, Cine Plus, Arte France
Cast: Jan Dieter Schneider, Antonia Bill, Maximilian Scheidt, Marita Breuer, Ruediger Kriese, Philine Lembeck, Melanie Fouche, Eva Zeidler, Reinhard Paulus, Barbara Philipp
Director: Edgar Reitz
Screenwriter: Edgar Reitz, Gert Heidenreich
Producer: Christian Reitz
Co-producer: Margaret Menegoz
Director of photography: Gernot Roll
Production designer: Tony Gerg, Hucky Hornberger
Music: Michael Riessler
Costume designer: Esther Amuser
Editor: Uwe Klimmeck
Sales: Arri Worldsales
No rating, 230 minutes.