Tuesday, 23 February 2021

Heimat films

Wo der Wildbach rauscht

There is a Kling poem in his Tyrolese series which has fragments about WODA WILBA and WODA WILBA RAUSCHT which I found completely baffling. Someone (I think it was Ulf) told me it was a blurred version of “Wo der Wildbach rauscht”, a 1956 Bavarian Heimatfilm. Which I watched quite a lot of on You-Tube yesterday. So I am acquiring knowledge of 50s kitsch. I read that 300 Heimatfilms were made during the 1950s (German or Austrian). Kling’s poem actually refers to the opening shot of the film, he is describing a forested hillside and you are supposed to visualise the title and opening sequence of the film, showing a rapid and deep mountain torrent (the Wildbach) flowing down. I was told while living in Edenkoben that there is a channel, the Bavarian one, which shows a Heimatfilm every Sunday afternoon. I got the impression that this had been true since the 1950s (German TV began in about 1952, national transmission from 1954). But ‘Wildbach’ was the first Heimatfilm I have ever watched.

band (rauscht), ein rauschen da
untn; ein weisses, das, tannenbe-
pelztes rauh WODAWIL… WODAWILBA, rau
chende massive (eingenebelt), breitere na-
(‘schwarzgelbes stirn’)

A book summary links the genre with “germandom, blood and soil, and kitsch”, and this is the hill we have to climb. I only watched the first half hour of ‘Wildbach’, but my impression is that it is a good film. I had trouble with the dialogue because it is in dialect (most probably, very highly modified to reach an audience outside the region) and my education did not include Bavarian. Part of the set-up is that it is a (fictionally?) complete peasant society, so that everyone speaks the same dialect. (There is one Italian character.) This means that dialect-speaking characters sound natural, they are not forced into a culturally inferior position by the intrusion of people speaking the standard language, who would immediately seem to have better contacts and wider knowledge of the world. I just can't imagine a rural English film which would not have the gentry as part of the set-up. I don’t think you can find an English film which is purely in dialect. I did wonder if the Heimatfilm prefers the Alps because the low surplus possible in a cold climate and (probably) rather leached, hill soils did not permit the rise, historically, of feudalism and a parasitical landlord class. So, linked to the freedom of the Swiss people. This is just a guess, and anyway I read that such films are also set in the Black Forest and Luneburg Heath (near Hamburg). A link with landscape painting, so that the visual and landscape component of the films is very important to their appeal, is more likely.
The plot of ‘Wildbach’ is briefly that there is a rich peasant, Muralt, in love with a farm girl, who however prefers to marry Lorenz, son of the village mayor. There is a plank bridge (Steg) over the mountain stream, and in a fight with Muralt Lorenz falls off it and drowns. Muralt then goes to prison for twenty years, innocent of murder but not helped by witnesses. On release he vows to destroy the village by cutting down the trees which hold the steep slope together. Without trees, it will be swept away and allow the torrent to sweep the village away towards the plain. There is another fight, he falls into the stream but is rescued. Regina, a village girl, is disclosed as his illegitimate daughter. New facts emerge. He forgives the village and there is reconciliation.

I have to mention politics. These films are apolitical. The problem is that they are uncritical. West Germany in the 1950s was profoundly split, in the way people interpreted the recent past and the beckoning future, and anyone making a popular film would have cut out any apolitical scenes to avoid alienating half the audience before even starting. So we are not facing right-wing politics, concealed Nazism, ‘blood and soil’ ideology, attacks on city life. The issue is only that critical ideas are rather interesting in art, and uncritical art can often make us feel sleepy. As a matter of fact, the moment of German culture we are capturing here is “bright 15 year old comes out of cinema and thinks ‘that was a really stupid film, there is a whole world which such films fail to deal with, and I am actually going to live in the latter’”. All the Germans you are going to encounter because they write novels, political works, intelligent film scripts, etc., went through this moment. But, lots of other Germans never had this golden moment, or at least if they did it didn’t discourage them from watching Heimatfilms. The book summary I read points out that, even if the genre went into a big decline after 1965, it reached improbably high audience figures on television, and in fact still does. The audience moved away from cinemas but that does not necessarily mean that the nation (and the Swiss and the Austrians) collectively gave up on “affirmative culture” and began reading Adorno and buying rock albums.
I noticed that there is a film “Grün ist die Heide” and that this is (probably) based on a story by Hermann Löns, a Heimat writer of the Second Empire who volunteered for the Western Front and was killed there. He did have those militarist-nationalist links and was clearly part of the current which later became Nazism. This is alarming. There was a heimat movement in around 1900-1914, it involved ideas of being anti-urban which quite clearly included being anti-liberal, anti-Enlightenment and anti-Semitic, and it included a theorist named Adolf Bartels (1862-1945) who has a very doubtful political record. But, it doesn't follow that they owned the word heimat, or that any rural and nostalgic art in the German-speaking realm is significantly post-, or with, that movement in the era of the “drive for world power” (Griff nach der Weltmacht). This is a key question in writing about Heimatkunst. If you think back to the era of The Female Eunuch, (I may be showing my age here), Greer frequently refers in it to a work on “women” by Plöss and Bartels, which claims the widest knowledge of “women” and finds against them in every instance. It is by the same Bartels! It (Das Weib in der Natur- und Volkerkunde) is atypical and extreme, so Greer is not being totally candid in also presenting it as typical of male resistance to female authority. Using it as a guide to opinion in England and America is an eccentric move. But the Plöss and Bartels book probably is wrong about everything. Bartels was willing to translate his feelings of territorial defensiveness, against the rise of women and trade unions, into explicit ideology. It does not follow that writers of Heimat fiction, around 1910, actually needed him or agreed with his political positions. And there was a line of peasant realist fiction 60 years before Bartels tried to take the movement over.

If you actually go to Germany, you find that there are lots of parts of culture which never get exported to countries like England, and that for example the local “art” films you can see in English cinemas are watched by very few people, and there are whole realms of cinema that never get imported to Britain. Watching “Wildbach” is part of a not very well directed programme of trying to find out about popular culture.
My view of kitsch is that it involves grandiosity, the pretention to cultural height and formal powers which it does not possess. It may be that kitsch only happens when religion seeps into art, in a degraded form; this is what Karlheinz Deschner has argued. Heimat films are noticeably unpretentious, and for that reason I am doubtful that the word kitsch is correct. They may actually be unambitious, predictable, averse to ideas, “affirmative culture”, and in some cases badly acted. In “Saison in Salzburg” there is a hotel (“Zum schönen Reserl”), and in the atrium there is a polychrome wooden statue of a saint, I didn’t figure out which one. Importing this religious art into a secular story could be kitsch. But, it doesn't work that way – it’s just something you would expect to find in a rural hotel in Austria, a local artefact. Folk-baroque, I think you say. It’s just realistic décor, and the film isn’t kitsch.
In the 1950s, these rural films are clearly one of the typical cultural forms of West Germany (and of Austria and Switzerland). But in East Germany you also have officially favoured fiction which deals with idealised simple characters, in stories which avoid the political differences actually existing in the country. I haven’t worked out the relationship between the two forms of idyll.

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