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German Cinema Classics 
Heimat (1938)

Heimat poster [1]9,830 words

Heimat is one of the finest productions of Third Reich cinema, and by any standard it is an excellent film. The title means “homeland,” and in the minds of many the word Heimat is closely associated with National Socialist ideology. Indeed, a close study of this film can give us priceless insights into the true nature of that ideology. But the results may surprise you.

In fact, Heimat is based on an 1893 stage drama of the same name, by the celebrated German playwright and novelist Hermann Sudermann (1857–1928). I have written of Suderman’s work before [2]. He was the author of the novella Die Reise nach Tilsit, which was filmed by F. W. Murnau as Sunrise in 1927, and the again by Veit Harlan in 1939 (as Die Reise nach Tilsit).

Heimat was Sudermann’s most successful play, and indeed it was one of the most popular plays of the late 19th century. For English-speaking audiences, it was translated under the title Magda, the name of the main character. And Magda was played by such luminaries as Sarah Bernhardt and Eleanora Duse. In the film version, she is played by the great Zarah Leander, about whom I will have more to say later.

Heimat pressbook [3]When Heimat was filmed, Sudermann had only been dead for ten years, and his novels and plays were still well-known to the German audience. As a result, the film is a relatively faithful adaptation. However, a number of significant changes were made – most of which are improvements on the original. The major change is that the story is given a much more satisfying ending. But are any of the departures from Sudermann’s original attributable to ideology?

The fact that the play was chosen for filming by the state-controlled UFA studio indicates that its themes were at the very least seen as compatible with National Socialist ideology. Heimat is very much a “play of ideas,” and those ideas are indeed in keeping with the spirit of the times – of the Third Reich, that is. But not in the way that uninformed viewers (or critics) would expect. Heimat is, first and foremost, an anti-bourgeois drama. And it celebrates, in a way that is genuinely moving, the triumph of natural sentiments over middle-class repression and priggishness.

The Story of Heimat

In what follows I will summarize the events of the film, mostly ignoring differences between the film and the play.

Heinrich George as Colonel Leopold von Schwarze [4]

Heinrich George as Colonel Leopold von Schwarze

Our story begins in Ilmingen, a small German principality, in 1885. An old widower Colonel Leopold von Schwarze pays a visit to his wealthy sister-in-law, Fränze von Klebs. Fränze has made a fortune writing hack romance novels but thinks she is a great “poetess.” She is a big fish in the very small pond that is Ilmingen. The Colonel regards her with a mixture of affection and contempt, and coming to see her on this day is a great indignity for him.

You see, his daughter Marie (referred to by the nickname Mieze throughout the film) is in love with a young lieutenant, Max von Wendlowsky. But according to the custom of the time, the family of the bride-to-be must pay a “deposit” in order for her to marry an army officer: the ungodly sum of 60,000 Marks. The Colonel has only a few thousand, plus his pension. He appeals to Fränze to pay the deposit so that her niece can marry young Max, with whom she is very much in love.

But Fränze is not only a bad writer, she is also a social-climbing tightwad, who would rather spend the money on various projects that will catch the eye of the local royals and bring her more favor at court. The Colonel pleads with her, referring to Mieze as “the only child left to me.” But Fränze reminds him – and the audience – that he has another daughter: Magda, who ran away from home eight years earlier. “Please!” he cries in anguish. “We will not speak of this other daughter. Magdalena no longer exists for me.”

The scene now shifts to an elegant meeting room, at which Ludwig, Prinz von Ilmingen is presiding over a committee that has been formed to organize an upcoming music festival. Needless to say, Fränze is a member of this committee. The Prince is an amiable chap, and as is often the case with royalty, he is much less pretentious than the middle-class stuff shirts who make up his committee. With great delight, he announces that he has succeeded in attracting the internationally-renowned singer Maddalena dall’ Orto, currently attached to the Metropolitan Opera in New York. She will sing the role of Orpheus in Gluck’s Orpheus und Eurydike, as well as one of the solo voices in the Bach St. Matthew Passion.

The Prince’s committee members are not happy with this choice, however. The first to object is Franz Heffterdingk, the cathedral organist, on the grounds that dall’ Orto is an American. “For Bach, we need a German singer,” he says to the Prince, quietly but firmly. Heffterdingk is merely expressing a bit of healthy, national pride – and we will soon see that he is one of the most positive characters in the drama. The others who chime in, however, are moved simply by snobbery.

Next to speak is Herr von Keller, the bank director. He describes himself as a “convinced man of the church” (whatever that has to do anything). But when he speaks we are immediately suspicious, not just of his unctuous manner, but of the three prominent dueling scars that give his face its only touch of real character. (Herr von Keller, we shall see, is the truly blackhearted villain of the piece.) And, of course, Fränze weighs in rather comically. The Prince has had enough, however, and declares the matter closed. The participation of Madame dall’ Orto in the festival will be a great coup for Ilmingen, he believes.

When the lady herself arrives by train some days later, she is greeted by the Prince and by a large crowd. In their midst is the ever-curious Fränze, who becomes quite excited when she sees Madame dall’ Orto. The Prince, thinking she is an American, addresses her in English (these lines are not subtitled in the original version of the film). But the beautiful Madame dall’ Orto, wrapped in luxurious fur, reveals that in fact she is German.

Leo Slezak as Rohrmoser, with Zarah Leander dressed as Orpheus [5]

Leo Slezak as Rohrmoser, with Zarah Leander dressed as Orpheus

The Prince is delighted and states that now there can be no more objections. The diva is puzzled by this remark, and the Prince explains dismissively that some “petty bourgeois” had objected to her, on the grounds that she is American. Her companion and mentor, the crusty but benign Rohrmoser, explains that for eight years she had tried to become an American – without success, he assures the Prince! (It is worth noting that Heimat was banned by the American occupiers for a few years after the war – no doubt because of the perceived “anti-Americanism” of these lines in the film’s first reel.)

When Madame dall’ Orto is left alone with Rohrmoser a little later, the suspicions we have formed thus far are confirmed: Maddalena dall’ Orto is indeed Magda von Schwarze, the Colonel’s wayward daughter. She has clearly accepted this invitation to Ilmingen because she wants to be reconciled with her father. But it is going to be difficult: in eight years, he has never answered any of her letters. There is much that is left mysterious at this point in the drama, however. For example, Rohrmoser must depart hurriedly to be with someone, and Magda asks him to give this unnamed personage “my love.” Who can this be?

Meanwhile, Fränze is scurrying off to tell Colonel von Schwarze that she believes she just saw Magda at the train station; that Maddalena dall’ Orto is really the daughter for whom he secretly pines. Predictably, what has impressed Fränze the most is not that Madga is now a famous opera singer, but that the Prince kissed her hand at the railway station. The Colonel dismisses all this as “fairy tales.” And yet, we perceive that he is interested. Can it be true? Has Magda returned?

Meanwhile, Magda sends a note to her sister Mieze, asking to meet her that evening outside the cathedral. However, she signs the note “Maddalena dall’ Orto.” When Magda arrives at the appointed spot, however, she finds her sister’s fiancé, the likeable yet stiff and conventional Lieutenant Wendlowsky. Mieze had not thought it appropriate to come herself, in response to a stranger’s note. When Wendlowsky politely makes it clear that Magda will not see Mieze and that she must convey her message through him, Magda smiles and simply says “Greet my sister for me.” Max is thunderstruck, yet his insistence on “proper form” does not waiver. He will report this news to Mieze (and the Colonel), but he can make no promise as to whether or not Magda will be reunited with her family. He salutes her and abruptly departs, leaving her sad and confused.

Magda hears the sound of the cathedral organ being played, and enters the building. I have not been able to determine where these scenes were shot – but the location is clearly an actual church, and not a set. Its interior is stunningly beautiful, with the large organ sitting on an exposed upper level, accessible by twin spiral staircases, apparently of marble. Franz Heffterdingk, seen earlier, is at the keyboard rehearsing. Aside from what appears to be an elderly church deacon, the cathedral is otherwise deserted. In a beautifully atmospheric shot, we see Magda walking down the aisle, casting a long shadow, as the fussy deacon appears to shoo her away. Heffterdingk stops playing and is stunned when he sees her. “Magda von Schwarze!” he cries, and races down one of the spiral stairways to greet her.

It becomes apparent from their exchange that the middle-aged, bookish Heffterdingk was in love with Magda years earlier. She delights in surprising him with the news that she is the famous Maddalena dall’Orto. He says, rather pathetically, that he has waited for her all these years – but it rather obvious that his love was unrequited (she still addresses him with the formal “Sie”). Heffterdingk is shocked to learn, however, that Magda has not yet been to see her father. He encourages her to do so, but she is afraid – afraid that he will ask her how she “managed” all these years on her own. (We know at this point that Magda has some secret she is hiding, but we still have no idea what it is.) Heffterdingk promises that he will go to the old Colonel and ease the way to a reunion.

Meanwhile, Max is telling Mieze about his encounter with Magda. The younger sister is shocked. “Shouldn’t we go to her at once?” she says. But Max, like her father, is the stalwart voice of middle-class morality. “People will talk,” he says. “If we go now it will be the talk of the town in two hours.” Incensed, Mieze sits down at the piano and begins playing a gay little tune, knowing that her father has forbidden this (not wishing to be reminded of Magda, and the music that once filled their home). The Colonel enters and literally locks the piano, saying to Mieze firmly but gently, “I don’t want any music in my house.”

The scene now shifts to an elegant reception at the palace, which the Prince has organized in honor of Magda – or, of Maddalena dall’ Orto. Members of the local nobility and the town’s most prominent burghers are in attendance. They are a sorry, small-minded lot. One elderly army officer says to another gentleman, “They make a fuss over her, like she was a member of the royal family.” Then the officer questions the practical value of a music festival. Predictably, the older women are envious of Magda’s beauty and finery and so there is a great deal of clucking about her morals. One old bitty remarks to a second (clearly a member of the aristocracy), “These are modern times, Your Excellency. Morals tend to relax.” The old prune responds: “But not in Ilmingen, if I may say so.”

The Prince then introduces Magda to her own aunt, Fränze, who produces, he says with pride, “One novel every year. Each more sad and more beautiful than the last.” But Magda doesn’t recall her aunt with any fondness. “How do you do?” she says in English, and sweeps away. Magda must endure a succession of small interrogations by these pillars of society. One says to her “The public in America must be very mixed, suspicious characters.” “Of course,” she responds in an ironic tone. “Negroes, dishwashers, and frauds.”

We discover that Fränze is not the only one who suspects that Maddalena dall’ Orto is really Madga von Schwarze. The local pastor thinks he has recognized her as well. And at last Fränze confronts her. With evident disdain for the old busybody, Magda reveals her true identity before everyone. “Your Highness, it can no longer remain a secret. I am Magda von Schwarze.” The Prince is delighted: “Then you are a child of our land. That’s charming!” he says, kissing her hand.

The Prince sits down at the piano and tries to persuade Magda to perform one of her cabaret numbers. (She had been a cabaret singer – was für ein Skandal! –before becoming an opera diva.) The grand dames are shocked, needless to say. As the Prince begins to play, Magda leans against the piano and leers at the old women (who all look as if they are dressed for a funeral). She becomes, for a moment, the whore they all imagine her to be. And, as she begins to sing, they turn away in horror. It’s a highly amusing sequence – and Leander sings one of her best songs: “Eine Frau wird erst schön durch die Liebe” (A Woman First Becomes Beautiful Through Love). The only element that mars the scene is that when Leander begins singing, we hear a full orchestra backing her up! But this is a small quibble. It’s a delightful sequence which can be seen here [6]. When her song comes to an end, Magda wishes them all a good evening – and rushes out of the room.

Prince Ludwig pursues Magda, and congratulates her on her courage in facing this roomful of narrow-minded, middle class nobodies. The Prince is a minor character, but an interesting one. He is likable insofar as he as he sees the bourgeoisie for what they are. But he is not offered as an unqualifiedly positive character. The Prince represents, in fact, the decadent upper class, which is “above” the priggishness of the petty bourgeoisie not because its moral sense is more advanced, but rather because it has lost all moral sense. (Thus tying it, ironically, to its diametrical social opposite: the rabble, or underclass.)

Meanwhile, Heffterdingk is visiting the Colonel. He will receive Magda – but he will accept no conditions. He means to question her about the last eight years, and how she managed. “That is my right, my duty,” he says. “I must know if she has led a decent life. If she is still decent enough to enter my house.” It is clear that the Colonel was deeply hurt when Magda ran away from home. “Does she want my forgiveness?” he asks angrily. “I’ll tell you what she wants. She wants to impress us!”

Heffterdingk sees through all this bluster. He points out that the Colonel should be proud of how far his daughter has risen in the world, solely through her own hard work. “It is you who are defiant and proud, Herr von Schwarze. I know exactly what your trouble is. You want to have something to forgive, and you are annoyed that there is nothing to forgive here.” This seems to make the Colonel stop and think. He will offer her his hand – if she comes, he says. As to what his attitude will be when he is reunited with his daughter, the Colonel promises Heffterdingk only that he will be “just.”

When Heffterdingk gives Magda an account of this conversation later in the evening, she despairs and swears never to go to her father. But later on, when she is being taken back to her hotel by carriage, Magda impulsively asks the coachman to take her to Sophienstraße, where her father and sister live. Max has left for the evening, and Mieze has gone to bed, leaving the old Colonel alone with his newspaper, muttering about news of the great Bismarck. “Authority! That’s what’s needed! Authority over all [Authorität über alles]!”

Magda’s coach pulls up to the Colonel’s house. A light snow is falling. From the street, we see the Colonel pacing back and forth in his study. Something moves him to look out the window. He sees the coach. At this point we hear the lovely melody of Leander’s song “Drei Sterne sah ich scheinen [7]” – which she sings over the opening titles, in a powerful arrangement. What now unfolds is one of the most dramatic, and emotionally moving sequences in the film.

At first, just after alighting from the coach, Magda hides behind one of the pillars of the great (and symbolic) iron fence that surrounds the house. The Colonel takes a kerosene lamp and steps out onto the terrace. “Magda!” he calls. He does not see her; he has sensed her presence. Magda now goes to the gate and opens it, rushing up the walkway and to her father’s side, who stands there gaping at her, not believing his eyes. There is a moment of silence between them. Then, she simply says “Vater . . . .” “Bitte,” he responds quietly, motioning for her to enter.

Magda and her father are reunited [8]

Magda and her father are reunited

An odd but beautiful scene follows, reminiscent of the famous sequence in Queen Christina, where Garbo moves about the room in which she and John Gilbert have just made love, memorizing everything, not wanting to forget any detail. Instead of speaking to her father, Magda moves from object to object, lovingly embracing everything with her eyes, as memories of long ago come flooding back. Overcome, the Colonel sits down in his chair. Finally, Magda goes to him. She kneels and places her head on his knee, then looks up and studies him, her hands stretching to his lapels. “You’ve turned all white,” she says. “But you’ve become beautiful. I’m so happy to be here again.” On the verge of tears, the Colonel caresses her shoulder gently and says, “Why didn’t you come at once?”

Soon the door opens and Mietze enters. This reunion is much more joyful – not tinged with sadness. And the Colonel’s mood now brightens, until finally we see him positively giddy. When Magda speaks about returning to her hotel, he insists that she stay the night in her own home. Mieze offers her sister her bed. And as they are just about to retire, Magda embraces her father once more and says tenderly, “Gute Nacht, Vater.” “Gute Nacht, mein Kind (Good night, my child),” he responds, fighting back tears. (And I’ll wager that if any in the audience are not fighting back tears at this point, they are made of stone – or, what is worse, they are cynics.)

Before bed, Mieze explains her situation to Magda: how she is unable to marry Max until the deposit of 60,000 Marks is (somehow) paid. Magda, who has made small fortune as a singer, immediately promises to come to her aid. The next morning, the Colonel is being served breakfast by his gentleman’s gentleman, Christian (probably his old batman from the army). He tells the Colonel that when he tried to retrieve Magda’s luggage from the hotel, there were some protestations from Magda’s own servant. “These Americans!” says Christian. “But it’s not a Negress.” “Then we can count ourselves lucky,” replies the Colonel. (Interestingly, both references to Negroes are not expressions of “Nazi racism” but illustrations of bourgeois petty-mindedness.)

When Magda arrives a moment later, dressed to the nines, her father invites her to breakfast. But she explains she is on her way to the bank to take out 60,000 Marks for Mieze. Madga is ebullient, but the Colonel’s reaction is rather cool. He is evidently still concerned with what kind of life his daughter his lived, and how she got so much money. “You were poor when you left here,” he says pointedly. “Yes, but I managed,” she responds, wanting to brush the whole thing aside. But the Colonel won’t let her: “But how?” he asks. “I’m afraid, Magda. You’ve kept your good heart, but in your eyes I see something I don’t like.”

This awkward scene is conveniently interrupted by the Prince, who has ridden to the house on horseback to greet Magda. Both father and daughter rush outside to meet him. Magda politely refuses his invitation to go riding, and uses the opportunity to escape her father for the moment, saying that she must go to the bank. Left alone with the Colonel, the amiable Prince invites him and his family to the grand ball, to be held that evening as the first major event of Ilmingen’s music festival.

Keller and Magda [9]

Keller and Magda

At the bank, the cashier is surprised by Magda’s request to cash a check for so much money, and says that she must first speak with the bank manager, Herr von Keller (seen very early in the film, the “convinced man of the church” with the dueling scars). When Magda enters Keller’s office, she stops dead in her tracks as soon as she sees him. As for Keller, he too looks shocked (just barely holding his monocle in place). “So this is what you’ve become,” Magda says ruefully. “A pillar of society.” Unnerved by the encounter, Keller immediately authorizes that her check be paid out in full.

The ensuing conversation now reveals that eight years earlier, when Magda was first on her own, the two of them had had a love affair in Berlin. The heartless Keller recalls the whole thing very casually, as if he is being reminded of a pleasant vacation he took long ago. Magda studies him with unconcealed hatred. She had loved him then (though this strains the viewer’s credulity, I should add), but he had merely used her. The result? “You haven’t asked about your child,” Magda says. “Liar, coward!” she throws at him. Keller had disappeared from her life before ever learning that he had become a father. He is stunned at first, but quickly recovers.

Magda and her daughter Poldi [10]

Magda and her daughter Poldi

And now we know Magda’s secret – the real reason why she had so feared an interrogation at the hands of her father. And we know now who Rohrmoser was rushing off to meet early in the film, the person about whom Magda was clucking so much: her little girl. Magda rises and starts to leave. Astonishingly, Keller moves towards her and says leeringly, “But Magda, we could meet sometime . . .” When the cashier returns with a receipt for her transaction, she flees – leaving Keller pensive and bemused. Obviously, he is planning something.

When Magda returns home she is relieved to find Heffterdingk waiting for her. She has been shaken by her encounter with Keller, and needs her old friend to help her keep up a brave front before the Colonel. The old gentleman and his loyal servant have retrieved some bottles of champagne from the wine cellar to celebrate the engagement of Mieze and Max. Whatever qualms he may have had about Magda paying the deposit, he has now forgotten them and is positively joyful. And he takes a mischievous pleasure in informing Fränze that Magda has come to the rescue and paid the exorbitant deposit.

At the grand ball that evening, Keller asks Magda to dance. Not wishing to arouse suspicion, she agrees. As they dance, Keller confirms her worst fears. He asks when they can meet next (implying that it will be for the purposes of a love tryst). When Magda refuses to see him, Keller advises her “One shouldn’t endanger one’s secrets. You wouldn’t want to make an enemy of me.” He means to blackmail Magda into resuming their sexual relationship – fully aware that Magda is terrified lest her father find out that she has an illegitimate child. When she threatens to make a scene then and there, Keller releases her.

Keller is actually a favorite topic of conversation among the other attendees. The Prince privately announces that he is to be made a privy councilor, but the old officer seen earlier raises questions about Keller’s “womanizing.” The Prince has no illusions about him. He watches Keller dancing with Magda and remarks that this “pillar of Christian society” is evidently seething with lust. And across the room, Fränze is talking with one of the grand dames we’ve seen before. “I’ve entrusted my entire fortune to him,” Fränze says. The older woman assures her that Keller is reliable, but this exchange immediately tips the viewer off that something is rotten in Ilmingen. We know that Keller is a scoundrel. And we foresee that this penny-pinching “poetess” will soon get her comeuppance.

Meanwhile, Colonel von Schwarze is seated at a table full of retired officers – all of them wearing their old dress uniforms festooned with splendid decorations. They are drinking great tankards of beer and one officer proposes a toast to “our old comrade Colonel von Schwarze, who has returned to our midst.” It is evident that the Colonel has spent these last eight years in a state of depression and isolation, longing for his lost daughter. But now he has returned to life. “Thank you. I am extraordinarily happy! I am extraordinarily happy!” he cries. It is a touching scene.

The old officer we first saw at the reception the previous evening tells von Schwarze, “Yesterday your daughter showed such courage, as if she were leading a cavalry attack.” The Colonel delights in this, and we can see that at this point in the film he seems to have decided to accept his daughter and to take pride in her accomplishments, regardless of his doubts about her past. (And it helps that the Prince and his old comrades have accepted her.) Brimming with good will, the Colonel suggests that he and some of the officers take a sleigh ride to Oberwald the following day, prior to the opera.

Heffterdingk (who is present at the ball, but cannot dance) finds Magda alone in one of the salons, collapsed on a divan. “What’s wrong?” he asks her. “I’m being trapped,” she says. She then proceeds to tell him everything. Heffterdingk is shocked at first, then asks where the child is. “In Oberwald,” Magda responds. “I want to see the child,” he says. “What do you want with me and child?” she asks. “To love you. You and the child,” he says tenderly, stroking her arm. But Magda says nothing.

The following morning, the Colonel and his friends have travelled up the snow-covered paths to Oberwald, in three sleighs. A beautiful little blond girl, about seven or eight years old, sees them and rushes up to the Colonel’s sleigh. Still in his joyful mood, he immediately offers her a ride. But then suddenly our old friend Rohrmoser appears and cries, “Stop! Let go of the child.” He tells the Colonel (whom he does not know), “I am responsible for the little girl.” And now we know, needless to say, that this is Magda’s child (whose name is Poldi). But the Colonel has absolutely no idea that the little girl he has immediately taken a shine to is his own granddaughter. (A testament to the power of genetic similarity, one supposes.) He invites Rohrmoser to join them, saying that he and the child can return from Ilmingen on the noon train. Rohrmoser accepts, and hops aboard the sleigh to join Poldi.

When the Colonel arrives home later in the day, he finds Magda arguing with Keller in the living room. The blackguard has just proposed marriage to Magda, causing her to order him out of the house. Her father stands and gapes incredulously. Prior to calling on Magda, Keller had met with Fränze and another of his clients, both of whom have complained of large sums missing from their accounts. Keller is an embezzler, and his interest in Magda is now more than merely sexual: he wants a rich wife to bail him out.

Magda confesses the truth to her father [11]

Magda confesses the truth to her father

Magda flees the scene, leaving her father alone with Keller. With exquisite politeness – and absolute coldness – Keller refuses to discuss the matter with the Colonel, and takes his leave. Von Schwarze rushes upstairs to confront his daughter. He begs her to tell him the truth. He knows that Keller was in Berlin around the same time that Magda was, years earlier. “Did he have the right to speak to you this way?” the Colonel asks, frantic with worry. Finally, Magda tells him the truth – the whole truth.

The Colonel explodes. “You’ve betrayed us. You’ve soiled your father’s coat. You’ve despised the morality and order which are law in this house!” He has reverted to his default position, to the conventions which constrain him as securely as the iron bars that surround his house. The joy he exhibited earlier has vanished. We can forgive him for being conventional. But where is his compassion for his daughter, who has suffered so much at the hands of Keller?

Magda is defiant. “There is only one law for me,” she says. “The honesty of my feelings, being true to myself.”

“A very comfortable law,” her father responds. And, actually, he has a point. It is at this juncture that the audience begins to see things from the Colonel’s perspective; to see that the fault does not lie entirely with “bourgeois convention.” Magda’s “individualism” is flawed as well. We realize that Heimat is turning out to be much more morally complex than we thought.

Magda promises to leave Ilmingen, but her father refuses to let her. “You will not leave here until your child bears its father’s name!” (Note that at this point he has not expressed any interest in his grandchild at all; he does not even ask what sex it is.) This horrifies Magda. “You can’t force me to agree to that!” she says. “This concerns my life.”

“This concerns your honor, and my honor!” he responds, and then rushes out of the room, promising Magda that she and Keller will most certainly be wed. The Colonel dons his overcoat and prepares to go out, but not before unlocking a drawer in his desk and removing a pair of dueling pistols. At this point, Max enters. He and Mieze had been listening at the bottom of the stairs, and have more or less figured things out. Max, believing that the Colonel is off to challenge Keller to a duel, offers to stand in the old man’s place, saying that he has a right to.

The Colonel wields his dueling pistol, while a concerned Max looks on [12]

The Colonel wields his dueling pistol, while a concerned Max looks on

But the Colonel asks if he wants to marry into a dishonored family. Max says he will stand by Mieze. “So what do you want to do? Take off your regimental tunic and become a travelling salesman?” the Colonel asks. It is crucial for today’s audiences to understand what is at stake here, or little of the drama will make sense. If it became known that Magda has a bastard child, not only will she be shunned in Ilmingen, so will her entire family. Is this just? No, but that is nonetheless the reality of the situation. (And such practices are a necessary evil in a society that wishes to minimize the occurrence of out-of-wedlock births.)

The Colonel, whose entire life has been built on honor, would lose his honor. His pension could even be cut off. (This is not mentioned in the film, but in the time period it was a definite possibility.) As to Mieze, who will marry the sister of a woman so completely disgraced? Max? But if he stands by her, the Colonel is quite correct to say that his military career would be at an end. (Who one marries, and whether one is married, is to this day a matter of some significance for the career of an officer – though standards have fallen, needless to say.) We see in Max’s face that he recognizes the truth of what the Colonel is saying.

Von Schwarze orders Max to never again enter his home – not unless its honor is restored. Then he departs. Max explains the situation to Mieze. “It’s over. Everything is over. Do you imagine I could remain soldier in a town where the likes of a Herr von Keller brags about Colonel von Schwarze’s daughter?” And then Magda rushes down the stairs and out the door, distraught, bidding them both “Farewell.”

Magda returns to Rohrmoser and her daughter, who are being visited by the ubiquitous Heffterdingk. She embraces Poldi, weeping, then asks Rohrmoser to tell the servant to pack their things. They will be leaving immediately. Heffterdingk stares down at her. “And what about our work, Magda?” he says softly. “You are singing tonight and tomorrow.” Magda is uncomprehending: “I have to sing?!” she says, tears streaming down her face.

“Yes, sing. You want to flee from Keller. Are you that weak?” Heffterdingk asks. He reminds her of her obligation to her art.

“You speak of art, but it’s a matter of my life!” she cries.

Now it’s Rohrmoser’s turn: “Since when does that little life come before art, Magda?”

It doesn’t. Not for the true artist. And Magda does indeed stay and sing. But she says she will leave immediately after she has discharged her obligation to the music festival. Backstage, prior to performing the third act of Gluck’s Orpheus, Magda argues with her sister. “I can’t stay, Marie,” Magda says, pacing the room nervously in costume and makeup. “Yes, maybe I’m a coward. But I would die if I stayed here. Here with these people. It would be the end of me.”

“Your leaving would be the end of us all!” Mieze cries.

“But Marie, you cannot force me to give everything away: my happiness, my art, my whole life, and for what? For this thing which is called ‘honor’ in Ilmingen?”

“For us, Magda,” Marie says quietly. It is a highly significant exchange, as we shall see. Mieze tells her sister that if she leaves again, their father will probably kill himself. When Magda again asks her sister “but what about me?” Mieze answers selflessly, “I don’t really think it matters what becomes of the two of us. But there must be order!” (Aber es muss doch Ordnung sein). A queer lot, these Germans.

Zarah Leander performs one of the best-known pieces from Gluck’s opera, the “Lament of Orpheus” (“Ach, ich habe sie verloren”). As one relatively fair-minded historian of Third Reich cinema has put it, Leander’s performance here (and in the Bach St. Matthew Passion, which comes later) is “creditable” – meaning deserving of praise, but not necessarily outstanding.[1] Leander is a wonderful singer of first-rate popular songs, but operatic pieces are a bit beyond her range. Under the circumstances, her performance here is admirable, as well as enjoyable. The audience in the film is most impressed. And there is a brief, touching shot of the local pastor and his family, who are genuinely moved by Magda’s performance.

Meanwhile, Keller returns home and immediately instructs his housekeeper to pack his bags, for he most go away on urgent business. We sense that Keller is about to skip town, but the housekeeper informs him that a “gentleman” has been waiting for him for some time. When Keller enters his luxurious (really, positively decadent) parlor, he finds Colonel von Schwarze, still in his overcoat, pacing the floor. Keller is extraordinarily cool, and begins by asking if Magda approves of her father’s visit. “Stop your babbling! I know how to deal with you!” the Colonel explodes, pulling out one of his dueling pistols.

Keller, for the first time, is unnerved. “You aren’t going to shed blood, are you Colonel?” he asks. Keller thinks that the Colonel is there to either kill him, or challenge him to a duel. When the old man instead asks whether or not he intends to marry Magda, Keller is both relieved – and at the same time, it appears, slightly amused. “Herr Oberst [literally, “Mr. Colonel”],” he says, “I have the honor to ask for your daughter’s hand in marriage.” Now it is von Schwarze’s turn to be shocked. He hadn’t imagined it would be this easy. But Keller has his doubts as to whether Magda will go along with the arrangement. “You have my word of honor [mein Ehrenwort] that Magda will marry you,” the Colonel says, and then departs.

After Magda’s performance, the Colonel’s carriage comes to fetch her. Von Schwarze sits next to his daughter, looking utterly devastated. There is silence between them, until finally Magda says: “I’m staying. I’ll do everything that you want.” “I haven’t expected anything else,” he responds, without looking at her. There is no arrogance in the Colonel’s tone. As the daughter of an officer, and a citizen of Ilmingen, she is now acting as he knew she eventually would: from duty. ”Keller comes to visit tomorrow,” he says, and Magda stares straight ahead, looking like a woman going off to the gallows.

The next morning, Keller arrives as scheduled, complete with a bouquet of roses. He is rather shocked when Magda reveals that she has given her savings to her sister (to pay the deposit necessary for her to marry Max). “At last, an honest emotion!” she cries with delight. “You are such a bad actor.” But Keller still means to marry her. She will have to give up her career, he informs her. And when he is made privy councilor they will move to a new residence and live in grand style. However, Magda points out that he has forgotten one thing: “the child on whose behalf this marriage will take place.”

But Keller has this figured out as well. He announces that “naturally” the child will have to remain a secret, and certainly cannot live with them. “We’ll send it away, somewhere abroad. We can visit it now and then, and later when it is grown we could adopt it on some pretense.”

Magda can barely believe what she is hearing. She stares at him in horror. “What kind of human being are you?” Then she becomes hysterical, screaming for her father. Von Schwarze rushes in. “I was ready to lower myself, to sacrifice myself. But not my child! Never!” Magda cries, begging her father to throw Keller out. Then she falls onto the sofa, weeping. Though the Colonel stands firm in his decision that his daughter must marry Keller, even he is appalled by the man’s heartlessness. Still, he reaffirms the promise he has made Keller, and then politely asks him to leave.

Left alone with his daughter, von Schwarze orders her to accompany him to his study. Meekly, she obeys. Once there, the Colonel moves to the open box containing his dueling pistols. Magda stands frozen, watching him. Quite calmly, her father tells her “Either you swear on your child’s life that you will marry its father. Or neither of us will leave this room alive.”

At this very moment, Keller has returned home only to be informed by his housekeeper that two policemen called for him while he was out. They will return later, she says. Keller is clearly unnerved. And then the doorbell rings. We see that it is in fact Max who is at the door this time, but of course Keller assumes it’s the police. Keller refuses to allow the old woman to open the door. When Max begins pounding on it, she cries “You can’t do this Herr von Keller. All the neighbors will come out!” And she moves to open the door.

Director Carl Froelich now handles things with a series of rapid cuts, moving back and forth between the tense scenes in both the von Schwarze and von Keller households.

We see the Colonel collapsed in his chair pleading with his daughter. Froelich captures Zarah Leander in a close-up so beautiful she seems almost unreal. “No,” she says simply. Magda (her father’s daughter) is resolute, but we see that she is also terrified.

Then we see Keller sealed in his parlor, his face illuminated by an oil lamp. He knows it is the end for him. His sardonic smile seems to say “The game is up. It was good while it lasted.” And in a poetic touch, he blows out the oil lamp, plunging the room into darkness.

Darkness has also fallen over von Schwarze’s study. “May God have mercy on us,” he says. Then, suddenly, he rises from his chair and grabs one of the pistols. “Magda!” he screams, and collapses in her arms.

At just that point, we hear a loud gunshot and the scene jumps to Max entering Keller’s apartment. It is such a quick cut we aren’t immediately sure what has happened. Did the Colonel fire his gun? But when Max breaks into Keller’s parlor we see exactly what has occurred. Keller has taken his life with his own weapon, and lies dead on the carpet (near what appears to be a huge polar bear skin rug).

Magda helps her father into his chair. It is clear that he has undergone an emotional crisis – and turning point. He is exhausted, and perhaps now realizes how close he has come to committing an absolutely senseless act in the name of honor (a perennial Germanic problem). He had almost committed murder and suicide, and almost deprived a child of her mother, all because of what the neighbors might say. (And the insanity of it is that the neighbors probably would think that a family with a murder-suicide to its name is less dishonorable than one with a bastard child.)

As the bells of the cathedral begin ringing, Heffterdingk arrives on the scene. He replaces von Schwarze’s pistol in its case, then addresses the old Colonel. Their exchange is highly significant:

HEFFTERDINGK: What kind of world do you live in?

VON SCHWARZE: In a world where there is still some honor left.

HEFFTERDINGK: In a world where even a tough man like you can’t overcome his fear of other people. In a world that stifles living feelings, where dead phrases reign. In a world full of lies, Colonel, in a bad world.

VON SCHWARZE: I have grown up in that world. I know no other world.

HEFFTERDINGK (very passionately): But you do, Herr von Schwarze, you do know this other world. It rises up with new faces, and a new honor. It throbs against our hearts. The life that murmurs in you is too big, too powerful. It will break loose of those old forms. And you feel it quite well. You just don’t want to admit it.

None of this exchange is in Sudermann’s play – it is entirely original. The Colonel is too exhausted to argue with Heffeterdingk. He asks them all to leave. Magda, who also seems spent, simply says, “The Passion.” She is referring, of course, to Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, which she will sing that evening.

The scene now shifts to the cathedral, and to the most elaborate, impressive, and moving sequence in the film. The orchestra and choir are placed on the upper level, as seen earlier. Heffterdingk conducts, with Magda sitting at his right. As the orchestra plays, Froelich’s camera, mounted on a crane, slowly rises from the pews to the level at which the performers are seated. Practically the entire town has turned out to hear Magda perform.

Froelich cuts together a number of scenes from the entire St. Matthew Passion, beginning almost at the very start of part one of the piece. Cued by Heffterdingk, Magda sings:

Buß und Reu, Buß und Reu
Knirscht das Sündenherz entzwei.

(Repentance and regret, repentance and regret
rips the sinful heart in two.)

The jumps from one segment of the piece to another are eased by intercutting other, brief scenes. In the first, we see Rohrmoser arriving with little Poldi. They sit in a pew near the back of the church. Next, we see Max informing the Colonel (who is still sitting at home) of Keller’s suicide, and what precipitated it. This causes the Colonel to change his mind, and we soon see him approaching the cathedral, accompanied by Max and Mieze. They enter, and sit at a pew near Rohrmoser and Poldi.

Poldi now recognizes the old man from the sleigh ride the previous day (though the timeline here, as in many dramas, is a bit unclear). She goes over to him. “Don’t you know me?” she says with a mischievous gleam. The old Colonel is very tired, and all his anger seems to have left him. He puts his arm around the little girl – and as the music rises gloriously, Froelich cuts to an exterior shot, panning up the cathedral’s spire.

The climax of Heimat, grandfather and granddaughter meet [13]

The climax of Heimat, grandfather and granddaughter meet

We now move forward in time, and the Passion is reaching its climax, with the death of Jesus. Poldi points to Magda and says to the Colonel, proudly, “My mummy!” Von Schwarze is stunned. Throughout the entire crisis, which centered on Magda’s child, he had not thought of the child herself – and that he might love her. He stares into Poldi’s little face. Then he looks towards his daughter and, smiling, caresses Poldi’s cheek, hugging her close. Both of them listen in silence to Magda’s singing. The Colonel closes his eyes, profoundly touched by the music, and by the newfound love he feels for his granddaughter.

The film closes with Magda and chorus singing a somber but lovely passage:

Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden,
So scheide nicht von mir,
Wenn ich den Tod soll leiden,
So tritt du denn herfür!
Wenn mir am allerbängsten
Wird um das Herze sein,
So reiß mich aus den Ängsten
Kraft deiner Angst und Pein.

(When I must depart one day,
do not part from me then,
when I must suffer death,
come to me then!
When the greatest anxiety
will constrict my heart,
then wrest me out of the fear
by the power of your anguish and pain.)

The Meaning of Heimat

As I indicated in my introduction, Heimat is useful for understanding the nature of National Socialism itself. The most conspicuous thing about the film is its relentless critique of bourgeois manners and morals. There is hardly a scene that lacks at least some sort of dig against stuffy, middle-class morality. Some of this quite amusing, but at times it is horrifying – as when we see von Schwarze come narrowly close to murdering his own daughter in the name of his “honor.”

But it is not just the middle class that is under attack here, but the entire rigid Wilhelmine social order. The top echelon of this hierarchy is only accessible by birth, and it is largely degraded and useless. The middle class prides itself on its “morals,” yet shamelessly seeks the favor of the decadent aristocrats. The upper level of the bourgeoisie is also, generally speaking, entered only through the birth canal. But exceptions are sometimes made for those who manage somehow to make or acquire a great deal of money, and who then dress and live in the style of the haute bourgeoisie. In truth, anyone can enter the middle class on at least some level, provided they have the cash. And yet the snobbery of the middle class often far exceeds that of the aristocracy.

Character and achievements and real virtue matter little to anyone in this system. All that matters is birth and wealth. And the status that comes with both is arbitrary. These distinctions divide a people. They set class against class, German against German. Ironically, the left-wing socialism that sought to remedy this elsewhere only succeeded in perpetuating class warfare. The core of National Socialism was the realization that neither system is right for a nation, and that what binds a people together is the realization and celebration of membership in the whole that is the people itself, das Volk. As Heimat dramatically illustrates, a social hierarchy based on birth and wealth, with its attendant ethos of “keeping up appearances,” serves to mask (or to erode) the natural sentiment of racial or national fellow-feeling.

The major conflict in the film is between the stuffy, conformist “what will the neighbors think?” morality of Ilmingen – versus the ethos of the free-spirited individualist, represented by Magda. Both are flawed, because both thwart the expression of natural sentiments. How the social morality of Ilmingen does this is more clearly illustrated in the film. Heffeterdingk is exactly right when he accuses von Schwarze of cowardice: he had been a tough and brave soldier, but he cannot get over his fear of the neighbors. He is so hemmed in by Ilmingen’s “code” that he is willing to condemn his daughter to marry a manifestly evil man – and then, when she demurs, he is willing to kill her and himself. Only a day before, prior to learning Magda’s dark secret, he had actually given free expression to his love for children, in responding to a little girl who was, in reality, his own granddaughter. And yet, ironically, once he learns Magda’s dark secret he shows no interest or concern for his grandchild at all – so fearful is he of what the neighbors will say when they find out that his daughter has committed an indiscretion.

The flaws in Magda’s moral viewpoint will be less obvious to today’s audiences – because the ethics of “self-realization” (i.e., selfishness and hedonism) is now the only permitted ethos. But Magda too denies and dishonors her own natural sentiments – and unchosen ties and duties. What did she think she was doing in coming to Ilmingen? Did she think she could just waltz in, exchange a few hugs with her father, and then go on her merry way? Magda wants to see him but only if he will not “interrogate” her. In the tender scene in which they are reunited, she actually asks him at first not speak (!), a detail I did not mention earlier.

Magda wants things on her own terms. She wants to be a “gypsy,” as Rohrmoser characterizes the two of them early on. When Magda reminds him that this “dump” (as he puts it) is her Heimat, he responds “We gypsies have this here for our Heimat. And in this here there can be no disappointments.” But Magda cannot be a gypsy, because she has roots in Ilmingen – ties to people she loves, ties she did not choose. She would prefer to have everything on her own terms: to be able to do what she likes, and go where she likes. She wants no sadness and no disappointment; to be able to heal the wounds of the past with a quick trip through town, and a gift of 60,000 Marks. But in the end she cannot deny the love she feels for her family, and the obligations she feels to them. And, yes, the love she feels for dear, old, imperfect Ilmingen.

So what is the third moral alternative here – the alternative to the unfeeling ethics of status and honor and hierarchy on the one hand, versus the free-spirited ethics of self-actualization, with no unchosen bonds? It is the ethics of moral sentiments; an ethics that affirms the ties we feel to others close to us – to our family and to our people. This ethics affirms that our situatedness in various networks of human relationships creates duties and feelings of obligation and loyalty. We cannot deny these, not because to do so is a sin, but rather because to do so is to deny part of our very identity (which is constituted in and through those networks of relationships) – and such denial goes against our honest feelings, which we ignore at our peril. (In truth, “self-actualization” is only possible in concrete social contexts, and can only be achieved through the cultivation and affirmation of our sentiments, including our feelings for others, and our feelings of obligation.)

Hegel can be useful to us here, as he so often is. In The Philosophy of Right, he delineates three moments of what he calls “ethical life” (Sittlichkeit): family, civil society (bürgerliche Gesellschaft, literally “middle-class society”), and state. All three are contexts in which modern persons define themselves, and realize their “ethical life,” in the form of duties, obligations, and codes of conduct. The family is a social whole united by love, and genetic similarity. In it, we first learn obligation as such: our duties to our parents, siblings, to the family name, etc. Civil society is the antithesis of the family: this is the work world, where social relations are divisive and based on competition, not love. But here too there is ethics: professional codes of conduct, loyalty to a company or a guild, etc.

Now, if we stopped here we would pretty much have a clear picture of what the modern world has become. Most people have two sides to their lives: family, and work (and there is precious little ethics in “work”). But Hegel says that the antithetical moments of family and civil society need to be reconciled in a third “belongingness”: belonging to the state. This does not mean “government.” Instead, what it really means is the nation. And though it goes beyond the two moments of family and civil society, it does so in part by combining aspects of them. In being a member of the state I am related to other members, who are independent and (mostly) unrelated adult individuals – as in civil society. But what binds me together with others in the state is fellow-feeling; a higher (or, perhaps, “broader”) kind of love: love of my fellow countrymen, of another man simply because he is a member of my nation, my tribe, my people.

Hegel’s concept of the state (Staat) comes very close to the National Socialist idea of the Volk. In the end, what Heimat is about is the ethics of love of one’s own, simply because they are our own. (And we don’t always get to choose them.) This is the central tenet of National Socialism as well.

Is Heimat a “propaganda film”? No, it is a film of ideas. It is a brilliant fictional presentation of the ethos of National Socialism. In fact, it is an allegory: with Magda representing the new, young (selfish, hedonistic) Germany, and her father the old, calcified, Wilhelmine remnant – both of them coming to consciousness of the fact that it is blood ties and love that matter most, and will lead to happiness and self-realization.

In the end, National Socialism is really about love. This is perhaps the most deliberately provocative thing that could be said about it. After all, most will say, isn’t it about hate? But, quite simply, one cannot have love without hate. One cannot love one’s own without being keenly aware of who is one’s own, and who is not – and who is a friend to one’s own, and who an enemy. (It is Carl Schmitt who will help us with this latter point, not Hegel.) “Hate” is really the wrong word here. One cannot have love, let us say, without a keen awareness of difference. One does not have to hate the other – but one must put one’s own first, and recognize that so long as there is another there will always be opposition of some sort.

Now, Heimat is not just a skillful presentation of National Socialist ideas. It is also an extremely fine piece of cinema. Director Carl Froelich was one of the pioneers of German cinema, shooting his first film (Richard Wagner) in 1913. Heimat is brilliantly photographed (by cameraman Franz Weihmayr). Mention must also be made of Theo Mackeben’s excellent score, which includes two of Zarah Leander’s best songs. His underscore calls to mind some of the best film music of Bernard Herrmann. The Ministry of Propaganda awarded Heimat the distinction of being “Politically and Artistically Meritorious.” The film also won the director’s award at the Venice Biennale (1938) and the German Nationalen Filmpreis (1939).

Zarah Leander [14]

Zarah Leander

But what is truly outstanding about Heimat is the performances of its two leads: Zarah Leander, and Heinrich George (as Colonel von Schwarze). I intend to devote a separate article to Leander. If you have never seen one of her films, I can promise you a revelation. (See Heimat first – it is her best film, and her own personal favorite.) It would be very accurate to liken her to a singing Garbo. Though I might even go so far as to say that she is more beautiful than Garbo. Certainly she is far warmer; less remote. Standard histories of Third Reich cinema usually dismiss Leander (who was Swedish) as the Nazi answer to Marlene Dietrich, who abandoned Germany for America. But the truth is that Leander is far more beautiful, a better actress, and a much better singer.

Heinrich George also shines as von Schwarze. Indeed, this is his best performance. He was a staple of German cinema, appearing in countless films from 1921 on (he has a small role in Lang’s Metropolis, as Grot, foreman of the Heart Machine). George specialized in playing blowhards – sometimes hateful (he plays the abusive communist father of little Heini in Hitlerjunge Quex, 1934), sometimes benign (as in Kolberg, 1945), sometimes a bit of both, as in Heimat. Rumored to have been a communist in his early days, ironically he died of starvation in a Soviet concentration camp shortly after the war. (As to Leander, she was shunned for a time – but she revived her singing career in the 1950s, remaining popular until her death in 1981. Click here for a video of Leander in her old age, performing the Beatles’ “Yesterday [15].”

Heimat is available with English subtitles from Rare Films and More [16] (formerly German War Films). The entire film, without subtitles, is available on YouTube [17].


1. David Stewart Hull, Film in the Third Reich (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969), 143.