Germany, 1949: A destroyed country with no work and no perspective for young women, a country missing its men. It is however not only hopelessness but also curiosity that makes 238 women from northern Germany answer the call of a newspaper article: ‘The Icelandic Farmer’s Association is looking for agricultural workers.’
It turned out to be Iceland’s first mass integration, now mostly forgotten.
Heike Fink’s film Home in the Ice concentrates on six of these women, now about 80 years old. Fink’s camera work is tactful and discreet and gives the interviewees all the time they need to tell their stories. This is completed by beautiful, serene pictures of the Icelandic landscape.
It is touching to hear how the women still speak in their distinct northern dialects, as if they had just stepped off the ship 60 days ago, and not 60 years.
Those lives were not always free of difficulties and even deprivation. “We came here to work hard,” one of them says, “we weren’t afraid to work.” But of course there is a difference between making people work hard and exploiting them. Many suffered under the hardship their employers—mostly elderly men living alone on their farms—put them through.
“If a farmer took you in as a household help,” Anna says with her coarse voice, “he almost always took you into his bed as well.” When, five children later, they finally married, he was too drunk to write his name, she remembers.
Only now that he is dead, she says matter-of-factly, does she have a real life. And when she shows her children’s and grandchildren’s (and great-grandchildren’s) pictures on the wall, she smiles proudly as if she couldn’t believe how she could have produced such an amazing family.
Luckily enough, there were also some real love stories, like Ursula’s. She met her future husband on a dance and it was love at first sight. The way her carefully made-up face beams when talking about it, it’s easy to imagine what she must have looked like as a 20-year-old girl, teaching Icelandic men to dance properly.
The women’s openness is charming and the backbone of the film. The way their faces sometimes say more than their words, the way they look at their husbands—or don’t. None of the men seem to have learned any German, and one of the wives wasn’t even allowed to raise her children bilingually as the father was afraid they would be outsiders in the village.
While one is profoundly convinced to be an Icelander, another still feels German, and a third one does not know where she belongs and probably never will. But all of the women remember the homesickness of the first years, writing long letters to their families or even singing folksongs to the cows to overcome it.
Home in the Ice is a quiet little film that shows six remarkable women whose intimate reflections are warm-hearted and conciliatory. It is hoped that the film will be screened on Icelandic television, allowing the women’s stories to be heard by more people in Iceland.