Not to be confused with Edgar Reitz’s mammoth Heimat film series (which ran for almost 60 hours and followed the life of a single German family from the 1840s to the year 2000 and is considered one of the longest film series in cinema history), Nora Krug’s Heimat is a graphic novel that charts her attempts to make peace with her own family’s history. You only have to look at the cover, in which Krug recreates David Friedrich’s painting, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, to see that she is placing herself in the role of questioner of history, a person overseeing the landscape of her life, a person – to return to the original German of the painting’s title – taking a hike through what she understands, ruminating on what she knows and what she doesn’t.
Subtitled ‘A German Family Album’, Heimat, for the most part, functions as a collage of photographs and drawings, with schoolbooks, annotated archive material, cartoons, letters, interviews, newspapers, maps – even scraps of wallpaper – which Krug uses to build a picture of her family over the last hundred or more years, her urgent aim to exonerate where she can, to assuage the shame she feels at what her country did, to understand her place and the place of her family in the most pivotal events of the twentieth century. “Whenever I travelled aboard as a teenager,” Krug writes, “my guilt travelled with me.” The nuance on display is subtly underlined by the use of what appears to be pencil for the words that line many of the pages (it’s worth saying, although this is a graphic work, it’s within shouting distance of being an actual novel – there are a lot more words here than in a typical graphic novel, but Krug is deft and design savvy when it comes to how they run, running strips of torn paper over pages of other words, tearing a face away from a photograph and filling the space with words, emptying her mind so that Heimat can feel, at times, almost like a journal or a school project).
There are two stories that intertwine across the telling – the story of Krug’s grandfather Willi, on her mother’s side, a man who ran a driving school across from a synagogue burned once and then twice as troubles intensified, and the story of Franz-Karl, her father’s name-sake and older brother, killed in WWII. She speaks to all of her surviving relatives, even estranged members of her extended family who were no longer on speaking terms with her father; she explores newly released archives, buys postcards on eBay, shares family photographs that also happen to show where later scenes of atrocity took place, finds terrible evidence of early indoctrination in old schoolbooks, gets as close to truth as time and distance allow (Willi’s 18 month campaign to have himself labelled a ‘follower’ in the aftermath of the war is particularly bitter). At the same time, in letters sent home from the front to his parents, Franz-Karl is revealed to be as frightened and humane as you’d expect any 18 year old boy to be as he fights a terrible war and sees terrible things (“Witnessing the change in his appearance is painful. The softness in his face is gone.”)
And, of course, along the way Krug shines a light on parts of the larger story not often told (how history was taught in German schools, how the Allies treated the Germans in the immediate aftermath of WWII, of the tens of thousands of Germans killed for resisting the Nazi regime, of the 150,000 men of Jewish descent who fought in the Wehrmacht – the story, as all true stories tend to be, infinitely more complicated than vanilla retellings allow). As you’d expect, it’s a tremendous and scholarly piece of work, and deeply humane. “What would it be like if [Franz-Karl] were sitting in the room with us right now?” she asks at the book’s close. “Who would we be as a family if the war had never happened?”
Any Cop?: It’s a substantial piece of work that grapples with its subject matter in extraordinary fashion (subject matter at once so vast we are already aware of another graphic novel on the horizon, Sunday’s Child by Serena Kitt, that, on the surface, seeks to explore similar territory).