Edgar Reitz’s marvellous film immerses us in the affairs of a German country town in 1844, a time when rural life is harsh and feudal order still prevails. For Jakob, the younger son of the village blacksmith, the romance of Brazil beckons. Tales of the Amazon have filled his head with dreams of striking out to the other end of the world. Though less readily equipped than his brother to step into the family business, the self-educated Jakob is a resourceful young man. His family can barely afford to lose even one son to the caravan of young leaving the countryside. Nor are the boys immune to the bonds of home: the excitement of a love affair or the tug of community. These are evoked in a vivid cycle of marriages, births, illness, funerals, a wild harvest festival – and the shared burden of never-ending work.
Reitz’s drama of a rural community whose young disappeared to populate the New World is richly detailed, extremely moving and securely grounded in historical fact. Descendants of the same generation of European poor who made their way to New Zealand will surely feel its resonance. To aficionados of German culture it has added significance as a prequel to Reitz’s massive Heimat, over 50 hours of television dramatising 20th-century life in the same town. But his leap back in time requires no prior acquaintance at all.
Shot with razor-sharp clarity in black-and-white digital CinemaScope, with occasional graphic incursions of colour, this is cinema both gloriously panoramic and intimately interior – a must for the giant Civic screen. Werner Herzog has an amusing cameo as naturalist, linguist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt.
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