I am obsessive about certain books and films. Two films that I obsess over are Heimat: Chronicle of Germany and Heimat 2: Chronicle of a Generation, both written and directed by Edgar Reitz.
In the last ten years, I have watched Heimat 2 over ten times and Heimat 1 three times. Needless to say, I love these films.
You might wonder why I use the word “obsessed.” I think it will become clear when you realize that Heimat 1 consists of eleven parts and has a total running time of fifteen hours, forty minutes, and ten seconds. Further, the film is in German, but not Hochdeutsch, but in a dialect peculiar to the Hunsruck region of Germany.
Last Thursday night I decided to indulge my obsession once again with Heimat 1.
It is important when being obsessive to begin at the beginning.
It has been several years since I saw the first part of the series and I was surprised by what I saw in the first fifteen minutes of so of the film. My discussion of alchemy and myth was being played out in the initial images of the film.
I had to ask if I were projecting my literary agenda onto the film or had the film’s themes and images soaked into my mind several years ago and played me.
The film begins with a shot of a large square stone. The stone lies along a road or in a field and I immediately recognized it as a herm, the four sided marker identified with the guide Hermes.
The next scene shows a young man with light hair and pale blue eyes walking determinedly down a long narrow road toward the village of Shabbach in the Hunsruck. His eyes are lichtblau, the color of the sea. He wears a German uniform and a rucksack, common to German hikers in the twenties, the generation of Wandervogeln, precursors of the German youth movement.
There is little or no sound; we hear the sound of his boots on the road, his breathing, and the sheep in the field. He enters Shabbach and walks down almost empty streets. The people are reticent and shy because the French occupy the area.
The young man walks to a blacksmith’s forge. There an old man works on the broken wheel of a wagon. Without a word, the soldier drops his pack and picks up a hammer and joins the older man in his work. They work side by side to repair the wheel. The blacksmith stokes the fire and removes a red hot rod of steel. They pound it and shape it together on the anvil until the old man says, “Thank God.” The director has now let us know that the son has returned and he is a blacksmith like his father.
A woman opens the door of the house across the way and calls her son to come in. He walks toward her, away from his father, pauses and then walks to the compost heap, and urinates. Paul Simon has arrived home.
The entry into the village is poetic and mythic. On one level, Reitz is saying: look at the past, symbolized by the blacksmith, and look at the future, the young soldier returning from a French prisoner of war camp. On another level, he is saying look at the alchemical process of change. The blacksmith is the most primal image of the alchemist. He transforms metals. The old man is the senex and the soldier is the puer, together they will push and pull on each other and change the Hunsruck. The future will bring radios, cars, motorcycles, and National Socialism, but the Hunsruck will struggle to remain the same.
I did not understand the alchemical importance of Paul’s urinating on the compost heap at first but in a strange act of synchronicity, I stumbled onto an illustration from the Codex Latinius, entitled Speculum veritatis, which shows a young boy urinating on the alchemical work of Hermes and a blacksmith. Marie-Louis von Franz states in her Alchemy: An Introduction to the Symbolism and the Psychology, Inner City Books 1980, p.48, that “ the alchemical image of the ‘pissing mannikin’ and the use of ‘the urine of an uncorrupted boy as a solvent, relate to the psychological reality that the unconscious is more responsive to the naïve and spontaneous attitudes associated with childhood.”
Therefore, Paul Simon’s spontaneous and natural act in the presence of his father and mother symbolize his return home and his rejoining the family unit, where he will work shoulder and shoulder with his father and mother. It also foreshadows the change and transformation that will result from Paul’s return home.
The “midden” or the compost heap shows the seething alchemical forces at work on the refuge of the village. As is apparent from archeological digs into ancient middens, they contain animal bone, faeces, shells, rotten food and vermin, broken pottery, and other useful day-to-day artefacts. The midden then becomes a symbol for the enclosure of the village and a temenos, a sacred place where transformation occurs. Paul Simon, by adding his urine, initiates the changes and becomes metaphorically the solvent to the transformation.