Sunday, 28 February 2021

Heimat films 2

Heimatfilm 2

In “Das Posthaus im Schwarzwald”, the setting is apparently 1905 but elements of the costumes and so on seem to come from a much earlier time. The female lead is the holder of a postal contract, that is for local public transport (post-coaches) as well as the mail and a coaching inn. A prince (nephew of the reigning Grand Duke of the local petty kingdom) is annoyed with an unfaithful actress and decides to take a holiday, incognito, at the coaching inn. He falls in love with the postmistress. She is played by Christina Görtner, who is a terrific singer, pretty, and a non-actress. The prince does not sing, apparently cannot act at all, and looks like a model in a fashion plate. At about minute 60, the Grand Duke dies and bequeathes the dukedom, unexpectedly, to the nephew in question. This means that he cannot marry the postmistress, who after all is not of noble blood. The last half hour is about star-crossed love, sacrifice, duty, noble regret. And this passage actually is kitsch. The high feelings don’t convince in a musical comedy. The two leads can’t act and they can’t express the emotions required. And the first part of the film showed the prince as a collector of actresses, so the idea that he would fall deeply in love with this rural beauty is just inconsistent with what we have already been shown. This story line seems to have been borrowed from quite another film – presumably one of the films about Crown Prince Rudolf, of which at least one was made during the 1950s. But, in the end, I don’t think Heimatfilms are usually kitsch– this is an exception. One of the texts I looked at quotes a “rule” of writing Heimat films: people are never in charge of their own destiny. (Actually, “To want to take decisions yourself is a breach of the rules in the world of Heimat films.”) This comes from an Internet text which we can no longer access. Anyway, it is suggestive. The saleable element of these films is not their relation to rural life but the sense of comfort and irresponsibility which they are all flooded with. If you look at You-Tube playlists, one of them has 266 different films on it. It is evident that quite a few of these are not “rural films”, and that the label speaks to the potential audience as a promise of uncritical cheerfulness irrespective of geography.
One of Eliot’s characters says “in the mountains, there you feel free”, which is the premise of quite a few of these films. He has one passage set in a hotel by the Starnberger See, south of Munich, which also involves a refugee (stamm aus Litauen), and a second passage set in mountains during a drought. “The road winding above among the mountains”, surely Görtner sang that one. Is “The Waste Land” a crypto-Heimatfilm? More research needed.

When I looked at the Heimat novel, quite a few years ago, I was interested in the fact that one of its founders was Jewish; Berthold Auerbach (1812-86), author of Schwarzwälder Dorfgeschichten (4 vols, 1843 to 1854). We can't bypass the fact that Heimat films never have Jewish characters – a clear-out which is uneasily reminiscent of a more brutal clearing up of the ethnic pattern in Germany. The audience probably thought that Jews were not part of rural German life – which isn't even true. The films didn’t want to show diversity, or outsiders, or the possibility of being outside the community. Their audience actually wanted to lose consciousness of themselves as something separate from a group, and sociability.
A feature of the few films I have managed to watch is incompetence and forgiveness. For example, in Das Haut Hin (1960, probable non-Heimatfilm but on a Heimat playlist), the Peter Alexander character starts by going to a sauna, as preparation for a key oral exam. He is studying zoology so as to find a solution to the phylloxera louse (Reblaus) problem in his aunt’s vineyard. The sauna attendant simply fails to wake him up at the agreed time, and he misses the exam, and is exiled (relegiert) from the university. His aunt throws him out. So this is an example of banal incompetence which we often see repeated. More vitally, the films show repeated forgiveness for incompetence– endlessly. They go against the productivity ethos which is the central story of West Germany and its hard-working inhabitants. The film gets some laughs from the aunt not knowing what relegiert means, and at first thinking it is a brilliant result. Managerial types either do not feature in Heimatfilms, or give up ordering people around and merge into the cheerful and vague group identity. Calling them anti-authoritarian would be misleading, except so far as comedy is always about arrogant people. You would have to invent a category of “uncritical and conservative anti-authoritarianism”, which just isn't very useful.
The texts indicate that the Allied authorities classed Heimat films as “unbedenklich”, innocuous, in 1947. This was to do with licensing films – entertainment films set in villages did not pose a threat of Nazi mobs roaming the streets. So a high proportion of people making Heimat films, at the higher levels, directors and scriptwriters, had been active under the Third Reich, and (at least) acceptable to Dr Goebbels. After significant unemployment between roughly 1945 and 1950, they were ready in 1950 to do something lucrative but inconspicuous. The theme of “forgiveness” in the scripts may be connecting with the director wishing people to forgive and forget his filmography. It is conspicuous that the films are neither anti-Nazi nor anti-communist. If the Weimar system broke up, in its last years, into communists and Nazis, a simply “restorative” cinema would have connected with one side or the other. But Heimatfilm doesn't connect, it is all about forgetting. (I left out the conservatives, who de facto supported Hitler but who would have included quite a few monarchists.)

The texts refer to these films having a “function” of integrating the refugees into modern life. Just to clarify, the settlement at the end of the Second World War meant some 12 million Germans fleeing Eastern or Central Europe and resettling in West Germany. They were a factor in any political or cultural scene, just by numbers. The ”economic miracle” involved building homes for them all to live in and jobs for them all to do. It was an era of “forced savings” and of many people living in camps while they saved up to move into a flat. I am not sure about the “function”, because Heimatfilms are obviously designed to make money, not to fulfil some political doctrine, and the West German government was not in charge of the film industry. But, the representation of a Heimat to 12 million people who quite literally had lost their Heimat is part of the story. Some of the films show refugees starting out unhappy and reaching integration during the film. Commentators usually point out how artificial the geography of the Heimatfilm is. The films are always either set in the Alps, or in the Lüneburger Heide, or in the Black Forest. As this implies, these are not films recalling how great life was before 1937 in Mazovia, or East Prussia, or Silesia, or anywhere outside the 1946 borders. That would have been revanchism, and while I suspect you could have sold a lot of tickets like that, the Heimatfilm really is non-political, and this just wouldn't fit in a Heimatfilm. (Provinces then in East Germany were also not eligible. Really, you get the impression that film crews were falling over each other in the Black Forest, in around 1956.)
The areas chosen were not densely populated. Most migrants to the cities came from the densely populated rural regions, quite obviously! The regions chosen were picturesque, and the suggestion is that there chosen because they were holiday destinations. They were unspoilt because they were not very suitable for agriculture, often full of forests and mountains, and so they were not usually “home” at all. As Kristina Kaiser points out, most of the population couldn't afford a holiday, at the start of the 1950s. They could see posters and postcards. And Kaiser points out, again, that the colouring of the films resembles postcards. It is vital that some of the characters wear “Tracht”, regional costume, which was not in fact daily working wear in the regions.
The author quantitatively most exploited in Heimatfilm is Ludwig Ganghofer (1855-1920), not someone much read outside old films.
Thomas Elsaesser has said that the Heimatfilm is the only genre which was actually originated in Germany, and this is much quoted. I am not immediately convinced by this, partly because these films were not of export quality, and so they were not visible even to film fans in cities in other countries. I am quite aware that there is a “non-export sector” in every country, and that I am unable to make generalisations about this sector – cinemas in London show films by intellectual directors which were often not even popular in their home countries. So you could probably locate Russian, or Swedish, Heimat films, with a bit of effort. And this is much easier via You-tube. Also, you could argue that either the Expressionist film, or the horror film, were German inventions.
I was disappointed by how few films actually have peasant characters. A high proportion of the films are about characters who are simply in the country on holiday, and this could also be part of the “Urlaubs-Welle”, the “holiday wave”, which saw numerous films set in a Mediterranean land– Capri seems to be favoured. One function of the “economic miracle” was to destroy the popularity of the Heimatfilm – advancing prosperity coincided, in the Sixties, with a loss of interest in such films. The idea of a holiday in a warm country, and by a warm sea, was competing with the idyllic break somewhere in the Alps. Girls appeared in bathing costumes rather than in Tracht.
“Posthaus” has a supposed plot about the post coach being replaced by buses using the internal combustion engine. This is a State contract, so the prince has a role in allocating it. On his holiday, he takes with him Dr Haberle, a poet who also drinks rather a lot. He dresses up in a suit of armour and then witnesses a dance rehearsal by two very long-legged dancers – practising to please the prince. They are obviously nightclub dancers and obviously of the 1950s, so they have nothing to do with the Black Forest in 1905. They do get to do five dances. The poet pretends to be the prince to protect the latter's incognito so that he can woo the postmistress without her realising he is a blue blood. The poet gets to give speeches, receive loyal addresses, finally the dancers come and do a striptease for him because they wish to become official court dancers. He enjoys all this. This all may be a parody of the pretension of some German poets, wishing to displace the small-scale autocrats of 19th C Germany by becoming miniature autocrats. Stefan George impersonating a prince, that is instantly credible. The poet is played by Gunther Philipp, who is in most of the films I have watched so far – not a great comic, but better than most of the films he is in. The Internet shows him as having made 147 films – part of a whole world which we don’t see, I doubt any of these films got released in Britain or could be classified as a “good” film. Like the blonde shikses, he is there to make us forget how bored we are with the film and its plot. I was hoping to write that the Heimatfilm shows a shift towards stories about peasant characters and away from a preoccupation with small-scale Courts, and court officials of whom the writer is one, in one way or another. But, “Posthaus” exactly disproves that, I don't think there are any peasant characters, the coach service is a State contract, the dancers want a court appointment, and their uncle is a schnapps brewer who wants to be “schnapps seether by appointment to his majesty”. So, minor court intrigues. Of course this is an alternative to capitalism, and sidelining the whole world of productivity and performance measurement is key to the Heimat film feeling. Literati who were involved in court life were a feature of 17th and 18th C German language literature, that is one of the main reasons why we can't read their works any more.
Literally, you could have found monarchists in West Germany in 1955 (and, more so, in Austria). The Bavarian variant (Bayerische Heimat- und Königspartei) got 0.8% of the vote in the 1950 elections. But it was all a bit theoretical, it had a dream-like quality for most cinema-goers – court life was picked because the plots could be borrowed from older works, and mainly because it was completely unreal to the audience. It was part of avoiding politics. We have to add that it was an excuse for elaborate costumes. Chocolate soldiers, playing-card monarchs. If you look at an anti-progress doctrine in Heidegger, let’s say, or amongst the Greens, that is really a long way away from Heimatfilms. They are just entertainment. 'King' in Bavarian is "kini". In “Posthaus”, the dancers discover that Dr Haberle has been pretending, and that they have unsheathed their not very rural striptease for him in vain – but they don’t express any anger. This is partly to do with their limited range as actors, but more deeply part of the “forgiveness” aspect of these films, nothing has any consequences. In fact he goes to jail for impersonating royalty, and they visit him in jail.
It is quite hard to devise a script in which nobody says anything intelligent during the entire story, but maybe that is what a lot of consumers would prefer. A central point about these films is that they were a site where typically someone intelligent points out that what some quite stupid people enjoy is rather stupid, and this isn’t as helpful as you might imagine. They sum up “affirmative culture”. I am thinking more of a ten-year holiday where we don’t criticise affirmative films, and instead possibly try to enjoy them. I don’t really want to replace art with critical analysis.
But, of course, we have to admit then that the people who made the films were intelligent and, it follows, manipulative. The films are nothing like naive art even if they present naive characters. In fact, the films are a contact line where intelligent and culturally sophisticated creators came into contact with a very large audience of whom a high proportion were nothing like sophisticated. This is essentially benign, although I think that populist phases of Weimar culture and Hollywood were more creative and more benign.

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