Ursúla Guðmundsson likes to polish her nails. She says it’s important because her hands are very precious to her. We watch her carefully apply the polish on her 80-something year-old hands and we realise that she is trying to match the pink with her lipstick and her outfit. When Ursúla was a young woman, her hands bled from the manual labour she did and hurt from the washing powder she used to handwash the clothes of 13 people every week with. Ursúla Guðmundsson was born Ursula Quade and emigrated from Germany to Iceland after the Second World War. She is one of six enigmatic older women that director Heike Fink portrays in a beautiful film that talks about a little known part of German migration.
In 1949, the Icelandic Federation of Farmers was looking for female farm workers and put an ad in a German newspaper to which 238 women replied . The war was over, Hitler’s Reich had collapsed, the country was occupied and in ruins, and most German men had died as soldiers. In this situation, some women took a trip into the unknown, partly because they were adventurous, but mostly because they were hoping for a better life. The six women we encounter in Home in the Ice never returned to Germany, but also never felt perfectly at home in Iceland which raises the interesting question of what home actually means. One woman has German soil in her closet to be put in the coffin when she is buried, another one says she will never fully become Icelandic, and a third one needs to return to Germany regularly for the sense of order and accuracy that she misses in Iceland.
Heike Fink’s documentary about these women doesn’t break with conventional rules of documentary storytelling, but it is nevertheless very special due mainly to her protagonists, their fascinating stories, and the love with which Fink portrays them. Fink follows them to places of unique beauty and into picturesque landscapes whose breath-taking photogenic appeal is deceptive when paired with the biographies of these women. Iceland is for many mostly a cliché of untouched nature unless you have lived and worked there. These women didn’t arrive with touristic sceneries in mind, but in search of work and without any knowledge of the language or the country. Some of their hardships (loveless convenience marriages, abusive husbands, loneliness, isolation) are talked about for the first time here and give the audience an idea of the personal dimensions of these women’s journey. There is some regret, some broken illusion, but also the will to endure and go on and try to make it work.
The camera that is mostly at home with its protagonists and finds some astonishing solutions for summing up the emotional and personal dimensions of a 60-year-long history of German women in rural Iceland. When Anna Karólína Gústafsdóttir, born Annie Linke, is sitting in front of a lighthouse, a wide shot underlines how small humans appear in a country whose vast nature seems so overpowering. Through the framing, you get a good idea of the conflict between freedom and solitude in a diaspora that doesn’t deserve that name because their members were never a community, but rather scattered individuals all over the farms of the country. Without health insurance or a fixed pension and with exploitative loans, this paradise has hardly been Eden for women who were mostly too young and inexperienced for the labour they were asked to do. A few old photographs woven into the narrative show a happy and joyful bunch of young Germans who took a risk when they left everything they had. History, in this case, is oral history exclusively. Fink doesn’t re-enact or comment, judge or orchestrate the past in any way.
On a different level, the film is extremely interesting in what it doesn’t show and in what it doesn’t tell because the question of these women’s involvement in the Third Reich is never really explained. The name Hitler is mentioned once or twice and we learn that Ursúla Guðmundsson was a war refugee (fleeing from whom?), but the time before 1949 is not a narrative or analytical focus of the film. In that sense, Home in the Ice is in fact a brilliant Heimatfilm in that it reflects and depicts a silent war generation that is unable and unwilling to face up to their experience in Nazi Germany. The wish to escape Germany, in that reading, might have also been the wish to be able to start anew and forget the fact that a fascist system had finally collapsed, leaving the remaining German population behind in disbelief and with broken dreams.
Home in the Ice (Eisheimat), Germany 2012, 84 min.
director: Heike Fink, cinematography: Birgit Gudjonsdóttir/ Marcel Reategui, protagonists: Ursúla Guðmundsson, Aníta Valtysdóttir, Ursúla von Balzun, Gisela Schulze, Ilse Björnsson, Anna Karólína Gústafsdóttir, languages: German, Icelandic, Low German, distribution: mindjazz pictures
Berlin screenings: Fsk (film talk with cinematographers Birgit Gudjonsdóttir and Marcel Reategui and Icelandic Berlin ambassador, Gunnar Snorri Gunnarsson on Monday, December 6th), Kino in der Brotfabrik