A deafening noise crashes out across the valley from the hillside. After several claps of thunder, gigantic columns of black and gray smoke waft through the normally beautiful region along the Neckar River. It is only when the acrid sulfur fumes gradually thin that the extent of the damage becomes visible.
The castle of the House of Wittelsbach, towering above the city of Heidelberg, had been bombed into oblivion.
"This must have been like 9/11 for the people at the time," says historian Alexander Schubert.
The inferno in the Odenwald mountains left the Palatine headquarters of one of Europe's most important noble families in ruins.
Under the command of the French king, royal army soldiers had captured the Elector Palatine's fort and destroyed it with mines. There are no first-hand eyewitness accounts of the spectacular demolition today -- a drama that played out in September 1693.
But now a film portrays the calamitous events from the past in color and in incredible detail.
'Eighth Wonder of the World'
For an exhibition entitled "Die Wittelsbacher am Rhein" ("The Wittelsbachs on the Rhine") the Reiss Engelhorn Museum in Mannheim appointed its curator, historian Schubert, to virtually reconstruct Heidelberg Castle before and during the devastation wrought by the troops of the Sun King. The bird's eye view of the world-famous German landmark takes the audience first across the legendary castle garden, whose splendor saw contemporaries praise it as the "eighth wonder of the world."
Next, the camera approaches the still-intact palace at a slanted angle from above -- a perspective offering up the full splendor of the Wittelsbachs' construction that no one at the time could have enjoyed.
The picturesque tour ends abruptly when the picture begins to rumble powerfully and large pieces of the stone fortress start exploding under the force of the detonations.
The Heidelberg ruins, the result of this early example of a modern military strike, have attracted more than a million visitors in the past year. Tourists from the United States in particular are spellbound by the myth of the illustrious aristocratic clan which controlled large parts of Germany for centuries.
The House of Wittelsbach originates from provincial leaders who have fallen into obscurity like Rudolf I, the stutterer, or Adolf, the honest; history better remembers skilled rulers like Louis II, the severe. The impulsive regent had his wife Mary beheaded in 1256 out of jealousy.
'Conserve Not Restore'
Following the castle's destruction, residents looted from the illustrious quarry to build their homes. For more than 150 years, hardly anyone was interested in Germany's most famous castle ruins. Then cultural officials in Wilhelmine Germany in the second half of the 19th century suddenly called for the reconstruction of the walls -- a debate ensued similar to that surrounding the current reconstruction of Berlin's Stadtschloss. The former Prussian imperial palace was demolished by East German officials in 1950 after suffering heavy bombing damage during World War II.
But the sentimental lobbyists ended up losing the battle. In 1900, preservationist George Dehio arrived on the scene and shaped the future of the shattered building with a motto that was unusually modest for the time: "Conserve not restore."
Aside from some unobtrusive repairs, the sandstone ruins at the foot of Königstuhl hill in Heidelberg still look as battered as they did when the French blew them up more than 300 years ago.
Quite a few of those who oppose leaving the ruins as they are hold undiminished dreams that the former royal seat can be resurrected in all its glory. And indeed, that's where the reconstruction from the Reiss Engelhorn Museum comes in, even if it was only created on a computer.
The digital recreation of historical places is already fast becoming a trend in the media. A recent production by German public broadcaster ZDF relied on computer-generated sequences by the Darmstadt-based production company FaberCourtial, which has now resurrected Heidelberg Castle for the Reiss Engelhorn Museum.
Amazingly Realistic Scenarios
The builders of virtual cities can now harness the possibilities of modern computers to create amazingly realistic scenarios. As recently as only a few years ago, technology only allowed for a relatively crude rendering of buildings and landscapes.
Since then, though, huge leaps have been made. Recently, the Darmstadt animators recreated the historic old town of Konstanz on the screen as part of a larger project, and were able to include a tremendous amount of detail. "We had to deal with the texture of the roof tiles very accurately," says Jörg Courtial, the head of the production company.
Richness in detail was also the default setting when it came to Heidelberg Castle. "It wasn't supposed to look like a video game," says historian Schubert. That hurdle was overcome, but does the film match up to historical accuracy?
Even the flora around the castle has been meticulously recreated to historical standards, according to FaberCourtial. The columns of smoke that pour out of the walls, however, were given a bit of a boost to aid the overall effect.
"Back then with the French, they were probably not as spectacular as ours," Courtial admits.