The hills are alive with the sounds of naked young maidens, but the streets are destitute in Home from Home: Chronicle of a Vision, director Edgar Reitz’s nearly four-hour envisioning of mid-19th-century Germany’s widespread poverty and national disillusionment. The premise is ripe for a revisionist Kammerspielfilm, renewing the works of F.W. Murnau and G.W. Pabst from the ’20s and ’30s, but Reitz opts for magical realism instead; shot in black-and-white, the film intersperses flourishes of color, often saturated reds or greens, as ornamental reminders of a historical lens cast backward. The result, while sporadically kinetic through the use of an unchained camera à la cinematographer Karl Freund, is largely moribund and incongruent in its ambitious staging of two brothers and their struggles in deciding whether or not to immigrate to Brazil in order to uphold their motto that “any fate is better than death.”
Technically a prequel to Reitz’s series of exceedingly protracted Heimat films (1993’s Heimat II can’t even be watched in a single day at over 25 hours long), Home from Home is set in Schabbach, a fictional village where Jakob (Jan Dieter Schneider) lives with his mother, longs for a local beauty (Antonia Bill), and dreams of fleeing to South America to be among the native people, whom he fetishizes as pure and adventurous, based on the books he’s read. Through Jakob, Reitz initially engages a postmodern literary tradition led by Günter Grass and Patrick Süskind where a psychopathic or abnormal male protagonist endures a series of allegorical trials as evidence of undergirding, damning qualities of German society that have rendered the character as such. Reitz indicates as much through Michael Riessler’s shrill score, which is a nearly deliberate homage to Bernard Herrmann’s music for Psycho, suggesting that it’s only a matter of time before Jakob’s latently colonialist desires turn murderous, whether domestic or abroad.
For all of its evident toil in recreating historically accurate environments, Edgar Reitz’s film has little force as a work of cinema.
That turn, however, never manifests, though Reitz continues to tack on elements suggestive of darker points ahead, especially once brother Gustav (Maximilian Scheidt) returns home following military service, which primes a potential clash with Jakob’s increasingly unstable sense of place and purpose. Yet Home from Home neglects to generate conflict of this sort, preferring to mythologize the time period as one of familial bond forged through regressive nationalism. Reitz unites this with a literal sense of “homeland,” as the pines around a tavern appear green in an otherwise black-and-white film, suggesting artifice as the driving mechanism for both art and myth. When Jakob claims he can “close [his] eyes and go anywhere,” it’s surely a full-blown allusion to the “no place like home” conclusion of The Wizard of Oz, in which isolationist inclinations affirm one’s native country as a place of solace and refuge from tantalizing but ultimately ill-suited faraway lands where the grass is only superficially greener.
For all of the film’s evident toil in recreating historically accurate environments and researching the precise conditions in varying regions, it has little force as a work of cinema, primarily because Reitz neglects to really get into the muck of it, whether through depicting grimier living spaces or challenging Jakob’s notions of self and place. A lot happens by way of narrative in Home from Home, as dozens of characters weave throughout the village, but its toward redundant ends, particularly with scenes of Jakob reading and re-reading works of literature, looking into the horizon, and seeming perpetually on the precipice of clashing with those around him, only to wander off into a different portion of the land. To that end, the film offers visual majesty of a chintzy sort, placing landscapes as backdrops and navigating interiors without an attentive focus to mise-en-scène. As a late-career capper, it finds the filmmaker not moving mountains, but receding into the womb of formal convention.