The Life of Death


A film by Edgar Reitz


A film by Claude Lanzmann

Shoah: An Oral History of the Holocaust

the complete text of the film by Claude Lanzmann, preface by Simone de Beauvoir
Pantheon, 200 pp., $11.95

When Light Pierced the Darkness: Righteous Christians and the Polish Jews

by Nechama Tec
Oxford University Press, 262 pp., $19.95

Two enormous films about subjects central to the history of our time. Claude Lanzmann’s nine-and-a-half-hour-long film about the Holocaust has already opened in New York, after winning tremendous critical acclaim in France and stirring controversy in Poland. Edgar Reitz’s even longer rendering of the German experience of the twentieth century has been hailed in Europe as one of the most important films to come out of Germany since the war, but it has not yet found a distributor in the United States.


Heimat is a film about memory. Memory plays tricks. So does Heimat. One of its most persistent tricks is a seemingly arbitrary chopping and changing between black and white, full color, one-color filter, and sepia, a device sustained throughout the fifteen and a half hours of the film. In the first hour or two—covering the Weimar Republic—I found this device both a cliché (sepia photographs from an old family album—what could be more obvious?) and increasingly irritating. But when we reached 1945 I saw the point of it. For when you are shown the 1930s as a golden age of prosperity and excitement in the German countryside, when you are shown the Germans as victims of the war, then you inevitably find yourself asking: But what about the other side? What about Auschwitz? Where is the director’s moral judgment? To which the color filters insistently reply: “Remember, remember, this is a film about what Germans remember. Some things they remember in full color. Some in sepia. Others they prefer to forget. Memory is selective. Memory is partial. Memory is amoral.”

With this simple trick, Reitz manages to escape from the chains that have weighed down most German artistic treatments of twentieth-century German history. “We try to avoid making judgments,” he writes. Not for him the agonizing directorial evenhandedness, the earnest formulations of guilt, responsibility, or shame. Not for him the efforts to “come to terms with” or “overcome” the past. Not “Vergangenheitsbewältigung.” Not Bitburg. Just memory and forgetting.

This is the main key to Heimat’s artistic success. The other reasons are more obvious and more familiar. A small cast of well-defined characters enables the viewer to identify with their suffering where statistics and documentation would leave him cold. Reitz has said that he conceived Heimat partly in reaction against the American soap opera Holocaust, which had such a huge and cathartic impact in West Germany six years ago. Yet much of the success of Heimat as a West German television series (which is how the film was first shown in 1984) was owing to the very same soap-opera qualities that made for the success of Holocaust. This is, however, very superior soap opera.

It is beautifully acted. Marita Breuer brings off the extraordinary feat of portraying the central character, Maria, Reitz’s Mother Courage, from the age of nineteen (in 1919, when the film starts) to the age of eighty-two (in 1982, when the film ends with her death). In recreating the physical detail of prewar village…

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