With nowhere else to go but back, Edgar Reitz continues his “Heimat” juggernaut with a black-and-white, early-19th-century-set prequel examining home as a place you want to leave. “Home From Home — Chronicle of a Vision” is still set in the fictional village of Schabbach, but the locale is hardly recognizable, a jumble of impoverished dwellings whose occupants are haunted by destitution and struggling with unfair land ownership. Reitz maintains his visionary sweep through history, favoring plot over development of characters, except as embodiments of large themes. Franchise fans will enjoy the ride, but “Home” is unlikely to excite newcomers.
No prior knowledge of the series is necessary, and at just under four hours, this is the shortest of the bunch (not including “Heimat Fragments: The Women”), making it (relatively) easy to digest in one sitting. Reitz’s idea of focusing on the urge to emigrate reps a novel approach, maintaining the near-mythic ideal of home while proffering reasons why even those attached to the land would feel the need to leave. The German title captures the emotional aspect better, as “sehnsucht” is often translated as “yearning” and here refers to both the desire to stay and the longing for a better life in a new land.
Reitz explores the antecedents of the Simon family he’s made famous: hardened blacksmith Johann (Ruediger Kriese), representing the Old World at its most entrenched; his kindly wife, Margarethe (Marita Breuer); and their two sons, Gustav (Maximilian Scheidt) and Jakob (Jan Dieter Schneider). Schabbach has barely recovered from the Napoleonic Wars, still a living memory, and Prussian feudalism weighs heavily on the dwindling population who see no escape from grinding poverty except immigration to the promised riches of Brazil.
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Gustav is the practical son, Jakob the intellectual dreamer who stays awake nights reading everything he can on Brazilian natives, even learning one of the tribal languages (audiences will either find this bit romantically evocative or manipulatively precious). Henriette, nicknamed Jettchen (Antonia Bill), daughter of a gem cutter (Martin Haberscheidt) rendered mute by an unspecified trauma, catches Jakob’s eye and the two indulge in a hesitant flirtation.
Jettchen is the pic’s most interesting character, a young woman of unexplored intelligence whose passion is tempered by a practicality toughened by disillusion and hardship. She admires Jakob’s dreaminess yet secretly questions its efficacy in the real world, and when Gustav makes a pass, she succumbs to his sturdier embrace. Revolt against unfair baronial privilege grips the countryside and Jakob is arrested for sedition just when Jettchen discovers she’s pregnant with Gustav’s child; while the man she loves is in prison, she chooses the pragmatic path and marries Gustav.
“Home From Home” is especially strong at presenting neighboring towns as separate worlds, a la Thomas Hardy, far enough apart by horse or foot to be as distant as foreign lands. Disease and infant mortality are constant companions, and one poor harvest can plunge families into abject poverty. For most, the lure of the New World stems from the desire for a better life, though in Jakob’s case it represents a pristine Eden unsullied by the political and socials upheavals of the era.
In some ways Reitz’s approach is the antithesis of that taken by Michael Haneke’s “The White Ribbon,” unfurling history as an uncontrollable force rather than prying loose its more troubling aspects. Reitz passes too quickly over political and social upheavals — a plot strand involving the local baron (Konstantin Buchholz) is left dangling — and stops just short of the crucial revolutionary year of 1848. However, what he’s always done best is capture a sense of place and that particularly German ideal of “heimat,” which makes it so difficult to separate the people of Schabbach from their feeling of belonging.
The large cast, mostly consisting of newcomers, handle their roles with aplomb; when scenes become artificially sweet, it’s usually the fault of the script rather than the perfs. Werner Herzog turns up in a surprise cameo as the great scientist Alexander von Humboldt, both men larger-than-life figures making a disproportionally memorable impact.
Gernot Roll’s widescreen black-and-white lensing has a majesty especially appropriate in rural landscape shots, where big sky and large fields anchor the sense of yearning the locals would feel should they leave this pastoral gentleness for the lusher, rougher spaces of southern Brazil. Touches of color, applied digitally, call attention to objects yet have little discernible meaning and add nothing to the overall look. Superb production designers Toni Gerg and Hucky Hornberger disguised real locations with period-appropriate facades, thereby maintaining an organic sense of place while believably reproducing the look of a Rhineland town scarcely changed from its medieval aspect.