English Title: Grave Decisions
Original Title: Wer früher stirbt, ist länger tot
Country of Origin: Germany
Studio: Roxy Film, Bayerischer Rundfunk (BR)
Director: Marcus H. Rosenmüller
Cinematographer: Stefan Biebl
Runtime: 104 minutes
Genre: Comedy, Heimatfilm
Set in a rural Bavarian village, this contemporary comic Heimatfilm tells the story of the eleven-year-old Sebastian (Krojer) who believes himself responsible for the death of his mother. Fearing the fires of purgatory, this young Catholic boy spends the film looking for a way to redeem himself of his ‘crime’. Or if salvation is impossible, he will find a way of becoming immortal and so similarly avoid the pains of the afterlife. One method he uses to seek redemption is to look for a new wife for his father (Karl) and, ostensibly following his mother’s signals from the spirit world, he is led to the primary-school teacher, Veronika (Ronstedt). Unfortunately she is already married to the village DJ, Alfred (Tonkel). Despite this barrier, Veronika and Sebastian’s father do eventually fall in love, leaving Alfred out in the cold, contemplating suicide. Ultimately, however, Alfred seems to get over his former wife and we leave him playing air-guitar in his radio station as he broadcasts Sebastian’s musical debut. The boy at last appears to be on the way to finding immortality, having learnt the guitar, thereby following in the footsteps of the rock heroes that adorn the walls of Alfred’s radio station, all of whom, the DJ assures him, live forever in their music.
Rosenmüller’s film is one of the best known examples of a wave of film-making that reinvented aspects of the German Heimatfilme at the start of the new millennium. Translated awkwardly into English as ‘homeland’, Heimat is an extraordinarily emotive and slippery term in German that came into widespread use in the nineteenth century as Germany began to negotiate the challenges of modernity and nationhood. Following from its literary and artistic forebears, the Heimatfilm reached its zenith in the 1950s when West German audiences flocked to cinemas to watch escapist, brightly-coloured images of Germany as a rural idyll, where dirndl-clad women and warm-hearted men fell in love and married to a soundtrack of German Volksmusik, thus seeming to provide a cinematic embodiment of traditional German family values.
Grave Decisions cleverly and, at times, hilariously plays with this tradition. On the one hand, it highlights a darker, gothic note that was always present in the tradition, even within many 1950s presentations of Heimat as a chocolate box fantasy world. On the other, it engages the mores of the anti-Heimatfilme, developed by the film-makers of the New German Cinema in the 1960s as a critical riposte to what they saw as a quintessential form of ‘Papas Kino’ against which they defined themselves. Grave Decisions negotiates the tensions between the Heimatfilme and anti-Heimatfilme in both its form and content. Within the mise-en-scène the Heimat fantasy of Bavarian rural idyll is juxtaposed with an anti-Heimat image of farm life as a muddy and bloody reality. On the level of plot, the cosy narrative one generally expected from a 1950s Heimatfilme is challenged. As Alfred and Sebastian disappear into their fantasy world of rock, we are given an inkling of the reasons why Veronika left her husband, preferring the domestic stability of life with Sebastian’s family to Alfred’s permanent adolescence. Nonetheless, we are not wholly convinced of her insistence towards the end of the film that Alfred is now fine. The neat resolution demanded of the traditional Heimatfilme is withheld. That said, the emotional power of the Heimat idyll is maintained. Thus, ultimately, the film’s suggestion of real world problems, such as marriages that do not necessarily end ‘happily ever after’, along with its evocation of elements of the mise-en-scène from the critical anti-Heimat tradition, merely seeks to enhance the authenticity of the fantasy. This is a postmodern Heimatfilm that assumes a cine-literate audience who will have an inbuilt ironic distance to this tradition. At the same time it exploits the knowingness of its audience to overcome any cynicism the spectator might have for the Heimat genre and to indulge their perhaps unavowed desires for the nostalgic innocence the Heimat space always represents.
Author of this review: Paul Cooke