Why Grave Decisions is a Modern Heimatfilm

Roxy Film/BR Television

I came to understand the concept of homesickness long before I was old enough to have ever been homesick. My paternal grandmother moved from the Rhineland to Bavaria when she was just 19 years old, leaving her parents, her nine siblings, and her beloved Cologne behind. Although she made the best of her new life amongst what she called her Bayerische Büffel—an endearing term for famously stubborn, barbarous Bavarian farmer folk—she lived for visits from her siblings, the carnival period, and her Heimatfilme.

The Heimatfilm genre was first popularized after World War II, when Germany’s Vertriebene—those who were forced to leave their homes before and after the war—found comfort in simplistic stories and backdrops that embodied the very feeling of home and community. With torn families making up a world in ruins, people longed for a sense of home when, for most, there no longer was one. Movies such as Die Mädels vom Immenhof (The Immenhof Girls), which first aired in 1955, allowed its viewers to slip into an idyllic world full of natural beauty and strong community spirit, reconnecting them with that particular feeling of belonging that cannot be worded until it has been lost—i.e. the feeling of heimat, a strong connection to one’s home-town, its surrounding environment, its culture, and the people in it.

These films were incredibly special to my grandmother. Sometimes all it took for her eyes to well up were the opening credits over an untouched alpine backdrop, the camera slowly scanning open fields of lush, green grass while a hopeful tune promised happy endings. I never knew anyone to become as deeply immersed in a film as my grandmother did in her Heimatfilme. In Die Mädels vom Immenhof, she found a family dynamic she desperately missed and a dialect she no longer heard around her. The film’s backdrop recaptured the carefree times of her own childhood, times that had long since passed.

She would get the same warm, bittersweet expression on her face watching Heimatfilme as she did when she watched Cologne’s carnival parade on TV. Her face lit up when certain terms specific to the Rhineland region sparked memories of her youth (Helau! Helau!1); tears sparkling when the camera panned out to show the streets of her former home region packed with people who shared her accent, her humor, her traditions, and history.

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As I am writing this, I have a peripheral view of the palm trees outside of my window. There are only a few days left until December, and I just took my dog out for a walk in a tank top. The Christmas extravaganza has already taken over the shopping mall, and in just a few weeks time the streets will follow suit. Soon the naked palm trees outside of my window will be dressed in fancy fairy lights and I will celebrate the moment it finally turns cold enough to wear long-sleeved pajamas. But even then, Christmas won’t quite feel like Christmas. Because when I think of Christmas, I think of Bavaria, my heimat, the place I lived until I was 12 years old. The home I haven’t visited in exactly 11 years.

I do my best to recreate the coziness of the harsh, Bavarian winters inside my Andalusian living room. On Christmas Day, I close the curtains and pretend the sun isn’t shining. My boyfriend, bless his cotton socks, finds the crackling sound of an open fire and the pitter-patter of rain against a window for me on YouTube and plays them simultaneously, so I can cuddle up under the blanket and imagine the seasons changing for real. But sometimes the longing for autumn colors and the sound of crisp snow crunching beneath my boots becomes too much to bear. And whenever I miss the mountains, the real Milka-type cows (I swear, all I see here are toros), the lakes, and the people so much that not even a carefully curated YouTube soundtrack of gemütlichkeit2 can lighten the nostalgic load weighing down my gingerbread heart—that’s when I turn to Marcus H. Rosenmüller’s Grave Decisions (2006).

Grave Decisions is a typical Lausbubengeschichte—a term coined for stories about mischievous young boys a la Max and Moritz—set in a fictional, Upper Bavarian town afoot the Wendelstein Mountain (one my family has been hiking for generations). Eleven-year-old Sebastian (Markus Krojer) lives in a traditional country-style restaurant with his father Lorenz (Fritz Karl) and his older brother, Franz (Franz-Xaver Brückner). When Sebastian accidentally rams a delivery van into his brother’s rabbit huts and kills a few in the process, Franz is understandably upset. Tying him up against a supply shelf, he holds each dead rabbit up in front of Sebastian’s face and forces him to apologize with, “I’m sorry dear [Name of Respective Rabbit] for having robbed you off your time on this beautiful Earth.”

Finally, he holds a picture of their dead mother up to his face. Sebastian doesn’t understand what Franz is implying until he points out her DOD: She died giving birth to Sebastian. Franz holds him directly responsible and pushes him to confess his sins lest he is ready to spend an eternity in purgatory. That same night, Sebastian lays awake in bed and listens to the locals who have gathered in the restaurant to rehearse a play about the witch trials. As he falls asleep, his young mind muddles dreams and reality, fabricating its own, horrifying version of Judgement Day based on the play, plaguing him with nightmares. He awakes with a fright, and joins the actors at their Stammtisch (regular’s table), still clammy and troubled by his nightmares. He has pulled so many pranks and committed so many sins, he is sure he’ll be sentenced to 14 years in purgatory. And the only way he can avoid it is by becoming immortal.

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In an interview about the movie Krampus, Austrian actor Christoph Waltz told Jimmy Fallon: “[Austria is] a Catholic country, it works through traumatization.” This made me laugh out loud because the very same is true for Bavaria, and this can be felt throughout Grave Decisions. Although Catholic guilt is mainly explored through Sebastian’s nightmarish visions, it is clear that his local environment is characterized by religious institutions, and the threat of God’s wrath keeps children in line as much as the legend of the Krampus around Christmas time. It is rather contradictory, then, that the men at the regular’s table would offer such adult solutions to Sebastian’s question of immortality, namely to reproduce. The way to do that, they suggest, is to find a good-looking gal, to nibble her ear and ask her “whether she might, perhaps, want to fuck.”

Now, to those not familiar with Bavarian attitudes and humor, this line might seem entirely inappropriate—which, of course, it is. But this is the Urbayerisch—the traditional Bavarian—way. Elders don’t feel it necessary to sugar-coat the facts of life for their children because, for the most part, farm life—particularly alpine farm life—is taxing. Kids are raised to be tough and withstand any type of weather condition, hold their own in tavern brawls, and stomach slaughter situations. This is especially true for boys, who are expected to help out around the farm and be men from an early age. If a 9-year-old can assist a cow in giving birth, slit a rabbit’s throat, or drive his drunken father home from the tavern at 2 o’clock in the morning, surely he is old enough to grapple with the concepts of sex, reproduction, and purgatory.

Of course, times have changed since farms industrialized in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Kids are encouraged to find careers outside of agriculture, the infrastructure has changed allowing children to escape otherwise isolated country lanes and small villages, and the economy has improved. In Grave Decisions we see a modern, Bavarian mountain-village reality, but one that is still very much influenced by past generations. Although the financial situation of Sebastian’s single-parent family is never truly discussed, one can conclude that the family-run restaurant probably just about covers their expenses. Throughout the entire film, we see Sebastian wearing the same blue t-shirt and denim cut-offs, day-in, day-out. And, why not? The shirt looks clean enough and is in proper shape, the shorts do their job—if it ain’t broke, why buy something new? This was a norm when my father was growing up, still was when I started school, and remains so in Sebastian’s classroom. There is a clear distinction in clothes between the farmer’s kids and the village dwellers, and it isn’t necessarily born out of necessity but mentality. While the village kids become increasingly susceptible to trends and materialism, country kids maintain a sense of purity through their close contact to nature and their responsibility to it.

The language has changed, too, and Sebastian’s teacher Miss Dorstreiter (Jule Ronstedt) might be a good indication as to why. Though most characters in the film have a strong Bavarian dialect, realistically, it would have been a lot heavier as little as ten years prior to the making of the film, especially in a mountainous village such as the fictional town of Germringen. Hochdeutsch such as that spoken by Miss Dorstreiter is considered the standard, written German and has become the preferred spoken norm in schools and work environments. When I was 9 I lived in a village 40 kilometers south of Munich, and the only teacher I remember speaking Hochdeutsch was from the north. Every other teacher spoke Urbayerisch, so, naturally, most kids did, too—even the foreign kids speaking German as a second language. These days, my younger cousins mainly speak Hochdeutsch, while my aunt and my uncles’ accents are as Bavarian as can be. The true, deep Bavarian dialect is getting somewhat lost with new generations, and is now mainly preserved in the rural areas.

Bavarian is an extremely harsh language (it’s a dialect, but you can technically call it its own language), one that outsiders can easily take offense to. My grandma, who spoke with a soft, melodic Rhineland accent, was at times reduced to tears by some of the comments thrown her way by Bavarian buffalos. She could definitely take a joke, but in these instances, it wasn’t so much about what they said, but how they said it; the Bavarian language is naturally cruel, ruthless and, at times, pretty vulgar, especially to those unfamiliar with it. When Sebastian tries to convince a neighbor that her deceased mother is going to let the phone ring three times when she reaches heaven, she suggests “someone shat in his brain.” Sounds like a pretty rough thing to say to a kid but, in Bavarian circles, it really isn’t. Nor is it necessarily considered wrong to discipline your child with a watschn, a slap in the face. But for all its insensitivities, I love the Bavarian language; nothing brings me more joy than to listen to a bunch of Urbayern talk—it reminds me of where my crass sense of humor comes from.

As Sebastian goes about his quest to become immortal, Grave Decisions introduces many other Bavarian cultural traditions and norms. When Sebastian fails to find a girl to reproduce with, he decides to become a musician because, according to the local radio DJ, that’s what it takes to become immortal. He digs up his mother’s old guitar and fancies himself the new Jimi Hendrix. The men at the regulars table encourage his new mission and reminisce about all the times his mother played for the restaurant’s guests, mesmerizing them with her music. This is another important part of Bavarian culture, and many restaurants such as the one belonging to Sebastian’s family regularly convert into a Musikanten Stadl, a “musician’s barn” or local theater, on weeknights and weekends. The music often consists of traditional instruments such as the hammered dulcimer, the zither and guitar, and gstanzl. They’re funny, self-deprecating or mocking songs that usually find their origins during impromptu jam sessions at the “barn”—a musical roast, if you will. But the songs also consist of beautiful, heartfelt odes to the mountains—a Heimatfilm in song.

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What makes Grave Decisions a Heimatfilm for me, more than its nostalgic backdrop, is an old fashioned sense of neighborhood community. When Sebastian gets to be on the radio, it causes great excitement, even at the local supermarket. Granted, as Sebastian confesses to a long list of pranks (many of them involving his father’s clients), his five long minutes of radio-fame turn into an embarrassment for his family, but it doesn’t stop other listeners in the supermarket from sharing a knowing giggle. In a village with an estimated population of, say, 600 residents, everyone knows everyone, and everyone looks out for one another’s kids and their cousins. These are the type of communities where everyone is on a first-name basis with each other, and while people might not know the most intimate details of one another’s lives, they’ll bring you a homemade cake on your birthday, remember the date of your mother-in-law’s surgery, and happily read your kid the riot act (Leviten lesen, as the Bavarians say) whenever you’re not around to do so.

In Grave Decisions and other Heimatfilme, the village does much more than help to raise its children—the village becomes the very definition of home. It’s easy to get lost in the world, to feel disconnected from your roots and set in new mentalities, but the village that shapes your childhood will always be a point of return, even if only within your mind. Surrounded by the first mountain you ever climbed, the lake in which you took your first deep dive, the hay bales that remind you of the time you cried out your first heartache—that’s where you’ll always find your way back to the first true version of yourself, the one shaped by the first real world you’d ever really known. Never mind who you are today—your neighbors, the butcher, the priest, and the regular’s table will always know that purest version of you, the one that spat in a client’s soup and tried to electrocute your brother’s cat to test the theory of nine lives. These are the stories that will be brought up time and again around the regular’s table, whenever your father proudly announces your latest venture in life.

I haven’t been home in 11 years, and although a lot has changed since I last biked along the Mangfall and greeted the world below me from atop the Wendelstein, I know one thing will forever stay the same: It will always be my home, and to my village people, I will always be the girl who stole the neighbor’s guinea pig. My dad will always be the kid who pissed on his brother’s head. My uncle will always be the boy who had his head pissed on. And when I see Sebastian biking the lonely country road towards the idyllic mountain chapel, every fibre of my being is reminded of that fact. I’m half German and half British, but I don’t feel I am either. I am the Bavarian countryside, the mountains and the lakes. My heart beats to the sound of the bells announcing the cows’ return to their stable for the winter. My brain runs on a series of gstanzl. Forget about the country’s politics, its history and shame. Home is where the heart is and, like Sebastian’s, mine is in the mountains. And as long as I can’t physically return for a dose of crisp mountain air, I’ll continue to get my fix from the best modern Heimatfilm there is.