Popcorn and Inspiration: ‘Heidi’: The Mountain of Awakening and Self-Discovery


U | 1h 40 min | Drama | 2005

A mountain isn’t for the faint-hearted: It rewards only the brave. Those who dare its rarified heights can awaken to their real selves because they see and hear farther, clearer. Johanna Spyri’s 19th-century novel “Heidi” is about how some learn that lesson better than others. For over a century, it has inspired dozens of literary and artistic adaptations, one of the most endearing being Paul Marcus’s film of the same name.

Orphaned and penniless Heidi (11-year-old Emma Bolger) finds herself abandoned by grasping Aunt Dete, and left to the care of her grouchy grandfather (Max von Sydow) who lives by himself in the Swiss Alps. Furious at being forced to suddenly turn caretaker, he first cold-shoulders the cheery Heidi. In time, he grows attached to her, finding in his radiant granddaughter a kindred spirit who loves the mountains, skies, trees, goats, and birdsong even more than he does.

When a wealthy household in Frankfurt offers to pay Dete if she finds a playmate for their wheelchair-bound Clara (15-year-old Jessica Claridge), Dete reclaims Heidi and abandons her again, this time in the city and for a price. Heidi bonds with the cheerful Clara, but in spite of the many comforts in the city, pines for her grandfather and her charmed life in the mountains.

Director Marcus dwells on how resentment expresses itself in snobbishness, or plain loneliness. Heidi’s gushing goodwill suggests that, if we cultivate giving others the benefit of doubt, we’re less likely to become or stay resentful.

In Frankfurt, in the absence of Clara’s doting father and Grandmamma (Diana Rigg), governess Ms. Rottenmeier (Geraldine Chaplin) behaves like the household mistress, bossing over Clara and shabbily-dressed Heidi, not just the maid and butler. She keeps insulting those lower down the pecking order. Sadly, the maid takes after her; happily, the butler doesn’t.

(L–R) Grandfather (Max von Sydow), Peter (Sam Friend), Heidi (Emma Bolger), and Clara (Jessica Claridge) share a meal in the mountains. (MovieStillsDB)
(L–R) Grandfather (Max von Sydow), Peter (Sam Friend), Heidi (Emma Bolger), and Clara (Jessica Claridge) share a meal in the mountains. (MovieStillsDB)

This snootiness in the city reverberates in the village between mountain-bound grandfather and valley-bound townsfolk. He resents them. They seem to resent him right back. That rubs off on young goatherd Peter. Friendly enough with Heidi, Peter (Sam Friend) masks his resentment over his lack of schooling with mock apathy. Heidi responds to her lack of schooling with a willingness to learn.

Marcus depicts loneliness, not as a factor of circumstance (being left alone or surrounded by people), but as a state of mind. Grandfather’s been alone most of his life, yet feels lonely only after Heidi leaves for the city. In the city, Heidi’s rarely alone, yet feels lonely as soon as she leaves grandfather and his mountain home.

Appearances Can Be Deceptive

Peter Sinclair uses harsh close-ups and a trembling, handheld feel to his cinematography to infuse anxiety in otherwise tranquil scenes. When Dete comes to fetch Heidi, she emerges in slow-motion, ghost-like out of a mist, while Grandfather stumbles out of his cabin as if to meet a dreaded fate.

Joceyln Pook brilliantly scores such ominous moments and her soaring soundtrack pays tribute to Sinclair’s superb shots of sunlight breaking through boulders of cloud cover, as if setting fire to the mountain.

Moments after Heidi is taken from Grandfather’s cabin, a camera looks down on him, forlorn in the silence, as his big boots shuffle slowly and loudly across the cold wooden floor. He grips Heidi’s abandoned doll with affection, then hurls it aside, sour at being denied the chance to care for her.

Through the bitterness expressed in Grandfather and later Peter, Marcus dwells on the destructiveness of the sulk, how it eats away at the soul, and darkens its windows, until the rays that once poured through, dim then die. It takes an act of sheer will to overrule pettiness, and tear the blinds open.

Grandmamma plans to gift Heidi some books. Rottenmeier rebuffs her: Why bother, Heidi can’t read. Grandmamma persists; Heidi isn’t stupid. Bristling with self-importance, Rottenmeier warns that appearances can be deceptive.

Another tense exchange strikes at the root.

Asked why she resents the obviously angelic Heidi, Rottenmeier argues that Heidi is a fraud, hoodwinking everyone. Grandmamma shakes her head. Defiant, Rottenmeier insists that she sees people “as they really are.”

Grandmamma smirks, “What can you possibly see in her that none of us can?” Then, she stops as if struck by a gust of wind, “Unless, of course, it’s yourself? A long time ago.” Incredulous, Rottenmeier says, “Myself, Madam?!” before walking away.

Heidi’s effervescence asks: Are you swayed by how people look, if not by how they look at you? Do you see others as they are, or as you are? Why resent others for the goodness you see in them that’s long since died in you? Why not use that new sight to re-awaken, not deny, that wilting goodness in yourself?

A young girl shares her generosity and effervescence with everyone she meets in "Heidi." (Warner Bros. Pictures)
A young girl shares her generosity and effervescence with everyone she meets in "Heidi." (Warner Bros. Pictures)
‘Heidi’ Director: Paul Marcus Starring: Emma Bolger, Max von Sydow, Geraldine Chaplin, Diana Rigg MPAA Rating: TVG Running Time: 1 hour, 40 minutes Release Date: Aug. 19, 2005 Rated: 4 stars out of 5
Rudolph Lambert Fernandez is an independent writer who writes on pop culture. He may be reached at X, formerly known as Twitter: @RudolphFernandz
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