For us, this autumn has had something of a German tinge: listening to Neil MacGregor’s Memories of a Nation radio series, seeing the Anselm Kiefer retrospective. Then there were Germany’s November anniversaries, including the quarter-century since the Wall came down. Meanwhile, I’ve been reading the last two episodes in David Downing’s espionage thriller series – each book the title of a railway station – about John Russell, a British journalist working in Berlin. Beginning in 1939, the sequence ends in the city’s post-war ruins, while Downing’s vivid rendition (in Potsdam Sation) of the last days of Hitler’s rule as the Soviet army advances on Berlin in April 1945 led me to the grim detail of Antony Beevor’s Berlin: The Downfall.
Above all, though, the autumn evenings have been filled with Heimat. Coincidentally, back in September, as the evenings drew in, we decided to dig out the DVDs of Edgar Reitz’s monumental TV series – first broadcast on BBC 2 on eleven Saturdays in 1987, a total of 16 hours screen time – and watch the whole thing again.
When Heimat was shown on West German television in the autumn of 1984, 25 million West Germans (almost half the population) watched Reitz’s epic of three interrelated families, living in the fictional village of Schabbach, in the provincial Hunsrück on the Rhine borderland. That epic first series was followed by two more, eventually taking the story from the end of the First World War to the beginning of the new millennium. Taken as a whole, the three series represented not only the story of Germany in those tumultuous years, but also a remarkable act of (semi-) autobiographical film-making on Reitz’s part.
Paul Simon returns to Schabbach from the war
The first series, Heimat: A Chronicle of Germany, begins in 1919 with Paul Simon striding into Shabbach, knapsack on his back, having tramped home from the war. It ends in 1982 with the death of his wife Maria, who emerges as the central figure in Reitz’s story of a village emerging from rural isolation into the modern world. The theme of the village becoming increasingly connected with the outside world (and, therefore, the forces of history) runs like a thread throughout the series.
The central scene of the first episode is one in which all the members of the village share a moment of wonder and happiness when radio arrives in the Hunsrück thanks to Paul‘s technical skills. He installs a receiver in nearby castle ruins, allowing everyone to enjoy an organ concert broadcast from Cologne Cathedral.
Heimat: radio comes to the Hunsrück
Reitz presents the scene as a symbolic one: the passing of the old world and the beginning of a process by which the Hunsrück will be networked to the rest of the world, thanks to radio, improved roads, cars and planes. In only a few years, Goebbels , the Nazi Propaganda Minister, would order the manufacture of cheap new receivers to spread Nazi propaganda to even the smallest villages in Germany. As Hitler’s architect and Minister for Armaments and War Production, Albert Speer, said at his Nuremberg trial:
Hitler’s dictatorship differed in one fundamental point from all its predecessors in history. His was the first dictatorship […] which made the complete use of all technical means for domination of its own country. Through technical devices like the radio and loudspeaker, 80 million people were deprived of independent thought. It was thereby possible to subject them to the will of one man.
Reitz repeatedly emphasises the allure of modernity for the villagers, associated first with Nazism and later with America. We see how the arrival of novelties such as radio, the telephone, planes and the autobahn figure prominently in the collective memory (summarized at the opening of each episode in Glaisich’s photo album). The forces of the modern world also draw some away from the narrowness and lack of opportunity of traditional village life: at the end of the first episode Paul suddenly and mysteriously walks away from the village, abandoning his wife and two children. Later he will return after the end of the Second World War to visit the village, this time as a wealthy American factory owner.
Heimat: Paul leaves the village
There is a strong autobiographical element to all three series of Heimat. Reitz was born in the Hunsrück in 1932, in a village called Morbach. Like Maria’s son Hermann, Reitz left home at 19 to pursue an artistic career (in film, rather than the avant-garde music that is Hermann’s field). Like many of his generation, he had thus rejected his heimat, a German expression that has no direct English translation. The term implies ‘homeland’, not in the sense of ‘nation’, but of locality: the place of your birth, childhood and earliest experiences; source of your language, traditions and spiritual roots.
The concept of heimat had gained strength as an assertion of identity in the increasingly alienating world of 19th century industrialization as huge numbers left German villages for work in the major cities. Heimat was a reaction to the onset of modernity, and the loss of identity and intimate community, and was an integral aspect of German identity that was patriotic without being nationalistic – a contrast to Fatherland, or Deutschland, which signifies a more chauvinistic patriotism. The concept is rooted more in regional identity (including regional dialect, something which crops up many times in the three seasons of Reitz’s screenplay).
By naming his series Heimat, Edgar Reitz was raising his flag in contested terrain. Certain aspects of the idea of heimat, such as love and attachment to homeland were absorbed into the assertion of ‘blood and soil’ which lay at the heart of Nazi ideology. Then, after the war, there were the ‘Heimat films’ whose screenplays placed a comforting emphasis on a cosy, provincial and homely Germany.
But, as Pehr Englén argues in ‘Memory of Everyday Life: A Study of Edgar Reitz’s Heimat‘, an essay published online, at the time when Reitz began his project in the late 1970s, the German left were redefining these associations. Radicals began to stress the positive elements of heimat, part of the anti-Americanism and rejection of growing multinational influence in the German economy. This can be seen most clearly in Reitz’s unsympathetic portrayal of Paul Simon when he returns to Shabbach as the wealthy American businessman, and in episode 10, ‘The Proud Years’, in which two representatives of a multinational corporation arrive, seeks to take over the Simon Optical factory, set up by Maria’s son Anton outside the village after walking home from imprisonment in Russia at the end of the war. Anton is portrayed as a model employer of the post-war German sort – concerned above all with quality, training and good labour relations. After calling a mass meeting of the workers and receiving their backing, Anton rejects the buyout, thereby saving jobs in the Hunsrück.
But Reitz was connecting to other ideas that were emerging at the time. Before he developed the screenplay for Heimat, launched a project in which he interviewed people in the Hunsrück, recording their memories and documenting villagers’ recollections of significant events in the past. His aim was to bring forgotten experiences back to life, and in this respect he was part of new movement among German historians – Alltagsgeschichte, or ‘the history of everyday life’. As Pehr Englén points out in his essay, these German historians had been influenced by The Making of the British Working Class, by British historian E P Thompson, which had lent impetus to the idea of ‘history from below’, of those formerly ‘hidden from history’ whose lives were documented by gathering oral recollections. In its German form, one emphasis came to be the reconstruction of local identities in the 1930s and 1940s, to grasp the perception of Nazism among ordinary people. Englén writes:
This focus resulted in studies of normal days in the lives of people during the Third Reich. According to Mary Nolan … these studies therefore came to challenge ‘neat stereotypes about collaboration and resistance, bad Nazis and good anti-fascists’ as ‘there were seldom clear lines between supporters and resisters […] only victims could be definitely identified’
His research led Reitz to conclude:
The moral question does not play that role in the lives of people which we think it does. Instead, there is a certain anarchic element in the nature of man and of society, a principle of living-in-spite-of-everything under all conceivable circumstances.
Which explains why Reitz was so troubled by seeing ‘German history reduced to the level of fiction in an American film studio’ in the American TV series Holocaust, when it was broadcast of German TV in 1979. The glossy sentimentalism of the series led him to reflect on German history, and on his own biography. Soon Reitz had a 250-page draft story set in a fictionalised version of his own childhood village. In collaboration with writer Peter Steinbach that was worked up into a 2,000-page screenplay.
In an interview with Stuart Jeffries of the Guardian in 2005, Reitz explained how his aim was to overthrow the genre of Heimat sagas that had been used by the Nazis to romanticise the country’s past and then revived in the 1950s as an anti dote to the so-called Trümmerfilme, or ‘rubble films’ – popular,but conservative, celebrations of Germany’s rustic past:
When I chose the title it was, of course, an important debate with the use of the term heimat. I was countering two things – the pseudo-folklore form of heimat used by the tourist industry, and its ideological use during the Nazi period. It was hard work to clean the term from the burden of history. […] What I tried to achieve is a realism of observation. It’s important not to be sentimental or engage in ideological preconceptions of one kind or another because all you achieve when you do that is put one ideology against another ideology.
For some sceptics, he did not succeed. One critic accused Reitz of having created a ‘bourgeois history of the Third Reich, a homespun tale of innocence’, while Timothy Garton Ash, writing in The New York Review of Books in 1985, said:
When you show the 1930s as a golden age of prosperity and excitement in the German countryside, when you are shown the Germans as victims of the war, then you inevitably find yourself asking: But what about the other side? What about Auschwitz? Where is the director’s moral judgment?
But, as Garton-Ash admits later in his review, Heimat is a film about memory, and memory plays tricks. Memory is selective, partial, even amoral. As Reitz expresses it:
Anyone who remembers lies. Our memory is a shambles, from which we build a new life, organize a story. The film takes the same approach; it has the same method. What is reality? I doubt that it exists.
Because the Nazi years are portrayed solely through the memories of the villagers of Schabbach, the emphasis is very subjective. As a result, events that dominate in histories of the regime are ignored in Heimat’s narrative. Moreover, this is not Berlin where the majority never voted for Hitler; even there, the Social Democrat and Communist majority laid low after 1933 or, in a very few cases went underground. Instead, as Reitz subtly suggests in several episodes, Schabbach is a place where the Nazi years are experienced with a mixture of fascination, acceptance, and what Reitz has called ‘living-in-spite-of-everything under all conceivable circumstances’.
Heimat: Hitler’s birthday celebrated in Schabbach: ‘Hitler ist ein Columbus’
Reitz reveals clearly how Nazism, which in the cities presented itself as the guardian of German rural tradition, appears to the villagers as a revolution of technological advance and modernization. We prosperity coming to the village: the arrival of the telephone to Schabbach, motor vehicles and the construction of a nearby autobahn. In the shops someone observes, ‘postal charges and rents are down; everything’s getting cheaper’. A banner displayed in the village one holiday reads, ‘Bread and work for the German people’. Eduard Simon, Paul’s elder brother, becomes the Nazi mayor, largely due to the influence of his ambitious wife Lucie, former madame of a Berlin brothel. The couple build a large villa which makes a great impression on local folk.
Heimat: Hans discovers the forced labour camp
One of the most significant scenes occurs in episode 3, set in 1935, when Hans, a one-eyed boy who is a bit of a village scallywag and a crack shot with his catapult, follows the new telephone wires to their source where the autobahn is under construction. Filmed brilliantly by Reitz, the camera follows the boy as he traces first the wires slung between telegraph poles then the cable buried underground, pushing through dense undergrowth, until he emerges at the highway construction site.
It’s a forced-labour camp for political prisoners, with watchtowers and armed Nazi guards, one of whom, recognising the boy’s sharp-shooting abilities, shows Hans how to sight his rifle by aiming at a prisoner with a pick: ‘See that man? If he tries to run, I shoot him in the back’. What we are seeing is a work-camp run by the Organisation Todt, a Nazi engineering and construction empire named after its chief, Fritz Todt. The implication is that the villagers either know nothing about the camp (which is only a short distance away), or are simply ignoring the reality of its presence. (You can watch the sequence here, and read an analysis here.)
Hans’ death notice. Killed in action
Young Hans will be killed on the Russian Front during the war, when the villagers will see his death notice among the columns printed in the local newspaper.
Later, Otto Wohlleben, an engineer assigned to the project but later dismissed because his mother is Jewish, is quartered in Maria’s house. They fall in love and have a child, Hermann, whose story will feature prominently in the post-war episodes and be central to the narrative of seasons two and three. Like Reitz himself, Hermann will turn his back on his heimat, leaving for student life in Munich and becoming absorbed in its artistic milieu.
Meanwhile, in 1930s Hunsrück, business is booming for the farmers and shopkeepers. Maria’s brother-in-law Robert is a jeweller, and while the autobahn construction proceeds, does a roaring trade in death’s-head rings for the men from the Organisation Todt (tod also meaning death). One day, Robert and his wife Pauline observe violence from their window as a Nazi march passes down the street past their shop. Robert observes that the Nazis are ‘duffers in uniform’ but shortly after the couple benefit when their Jewish landlord is forced to sell the house. ‘Things are not so rosy for Jews now,’ Robert observes.
Katherina in Heimat
One of the most interesting characters in Heimat is Katharina, the matriarch of the Simon family, married to the village blacksmith and mother of the three Simon siblings, Paul, Eduard and Pauline. A straightforward village woman, she has strong values, always sticks to what she believes, and is eternally sceptical. Sceptical about credit which, though it allows her children to prosper between the wars, will one day, she warns, come back to haunt them (as it does with the collapse of the Nazi regime at the end of the war). She is sceptical of the changes affecting her children and the village, which she feels are changes for the worse. It is Katerina who urges her grandson Anton not to wear the uniform of the Hitler youth. And Katerina who, on the day the village celebrates Hitler’s birthday (by, among other things, baking ‘Hitler rolls’ that Eduard, her Nazi mayor son, thinks taste just like the ‘Kaiser rolls’ they used to bake), marches off saying that she is far closer to her brother than to Hitler.
Her brother Hans actually shares his birthday with Hitler, as we learn in an important scene in which Katerina goes to visits him in the nearby town of Bochum. Hans’ son Fritz is a Communist, and one morning during Katharina’s stay, he is arrested by the police. A genial officer reassures the family that Fritz will be alright: he will simply be sent to a concentration camp for re-education to ‘exorcise that Marxist spirit’. He adds that there is no need to worry: ‘We have had the least bloody revolution of all time.’
At the beginning of each episode Reitz offers a catch-up in the form of Karl Glasisch, a wounded war veteran treated as the village idiot but who acutely observes village life with his camera. Leafing through his photo album, Glasisch recaps as if sifting through the villagers’ collective memory. At the start of the episode following Katharina’s journey, her visit to her brother in Bochum is absent from the photo album. The fate of her imprisoned nephew has been forgotten in the collective memory. In the narration to his film Sans Soleil, the French film maker Chris Marker remarks, ‘I wonder how people who don’t film, who don’t photograph, who don’t use tape recorders, remember.’ By forgetting, implies Reitz.
In 1947, Katharina makes her final expression of scepticism when her son Paul, the rich businessman back from America, speaks of the dawn of a new age:
Another new age. There was one after the great war and then after the inflation, and then 1933 … And then 1945, they called that Year Zero … Every time we expect it to be better. There is no end to these new ages. Six times in my life, there’s been a new age for me.
After having summed up her perception of History, she dies, surrounded by her family and friends.
Appalled by the melodramatic nature of the American series Holocaust, Reitz resolved instead to draw upon his own family history and youthful memories (he was born in 1932) to show the Nazi era as it was experienced on the periphery. In the course of Heimat, the members of the Simon family, their in-laws and the other citizens of Schabbach, each in their own way, become a part of the history of their time. Some embrace Hitler, while others are simple opportunists.
Though there are few direct references to the persecution of the Jews during the early years of the Nazi regime, there are hints of deep-rooted prejudice, such as when, in the first episode, Apollonia, a young woman with whom Paul has a brief affair, is ostracised by villagers for her dark complexion. Jewish or perhaps a Gypsy? She moves to France, and is never seen again. Later, Pauline and her husband Robert talk of their good fortune in being able to buy their house from the dispossessed Jewish landlord. The larger persecution of the Jews is not emphasized for one key reason: Schabbach is made up entirely of people whom Hitler’s ideology considered ‘Aryans’.
Eduard the Mayor, with his wife, Lucie
Hitler’s rise to power coincides with Eduard Simon’s stay in Berlin. Eduard, however, shows no interest in the large rally that passes by the brothel where he encounters his future wife, Lucie. Later, when Eduard returns to Schabbach, Alois Wiegand, who emerges as one of the few figures in Schabbach with a fanatical devotion to the Nazi cause, asks Eduard whether he saw Hitler in Berlin. Eduard replies simply that although he saw bright lights from the torchlight procession, he slept through most of it.
Eduard the Mayor and his wife Lucie
Lucie, grasping and ambitious, pursues their social advancement by ingratiating herself with the Nazi Gauleiter. With a loan from a Jewish banker, the couple build a villa in a neighbouring village, and Lucie pressures Eduard to become mayor. Despite her success, she regards her husband as a failure, more interested in his hobby of photography than in rising up the Nazi Party hierarchy, and he appears apathetic about the whole business. Nevertheless, in a significant scene, Eduard is heard explaining new Nazi farm policies to protect peasant farmers: ‘The farmer with his own farm is sacrosanct and protected. What Jews and speculators sowed in the Weimar Republic we will now refuse to harvest’.
Eduard the Mayor
In contrast, the Wiegands become firmly entrenched in the local Nazi hierarchy. Alois Wiegand (Maria’s father) is mayor of Schabbach, a wealthy man with an abrasive character, who ostentatiously acquires every new status symbol – radio, car, or phone – and becomes a Nazi supporter for much the same reason. His son Wilfried becomes a member of the SS, and warns Katharina that he could report her for feeding political prisoners from the labour camp working on the autobahn (Katharina gives him very short shrift). On the day that Hitler declares war on Poland, Wilfried marches around the village parroting lines from Hitler’s speech (while other members of the village gossip about a new baby, coincidentally born the moment the war broke out). In another scene Wilfried talks of the Jews ‘going up the chimney’ before he is silenced for speaking of such matters in the presence of children. Later, in cold blood, he shoots a wounded British airman who has bailed out of a burning plane to come down in the woods near Schabbach.
Eduard Simon and Wilfried Wiegand in church on Christmas Eve
All of this, I think, puts paid to the assertion of critics such as Timothy Garton-Ash that Heimat simply portrays the 1930s as ‘a golden age of prosperity and excitement’. What probably confused some of those who criticised Reitz for ‘lack of moral judgement is that in the long, complex and enjoyable films that make up the series, there is more – much more – going on than politics. What Reitz does so successfully is to convey the life of a community in its quotidian ordinariness and enchantment, giving us not melodrama, but the routine conformism of everyday life. At the moment I’m reading Anthony Beevor’s Berlin: The Downfall, and it was there that I found this, written by a female diarist living in Berlin during the dreadful days when the city fell in 1945:
One experiences history in the making, things which will one day fill the history books. But while living through it, everything dissolves into petty worries and fears. History is very tiresome.
The petty worries and fears (and joys and happiness) of village life fill Reitz’s episodes, in which the villagers’ lives are altered more by the arrival of telephones and television than by elections or political events in Berlin.
Glasisch with Eduard and his camera
During the course of the war, we see its effect on Schabbach: husbands and sons leave to fight on both fronts. Separated from his wife and child, Anton serves in a German Army propaganda unit on the Eastern front. In one scene we see the unit filming the execution of partisans in 1943. This is one of many references by Reitz to the part played during the war by radio and film. After the German defeat and his imprisonment in a Russian POW camp, Anton walks home to Germany, memorizing patents for new, cutting-edge optics he has designed. Founded Simon Optical, with investment from his American father Paul, his factory becomes part of the German ‘economic miracle’ of the 1950s.
The focus remains on the home front in Schabbach means that there are only occasional glimpses of the national drama of the war: passing mention of the Final Solution from Wilfried, and a brief sequence of the Allied bombing of Berlin. The emphasis on family and the separation of loved ones during the wartime episodes situates the war in the everyday history of Schabbach. It is the severing of bonds of family and friendship that makes the war memorable to the villagers, not major events recorded in the histories of the time.
One of the most gripping episodes of the series provides an example: in 1944, Otto, the quarter-Jewish engineer who worked on the new autobahn before the of war, returns to the area as a bomb disposal expert and is killed defusing a bomb. Four years earlier, Maria gave birth to Hermann, Otto’s son. Hermann is the figure who brings Heimat into the 1980s.
In an essay on Edgar Reitz published in Sight and Sound, Carole Angier wrote that in Heimat Reitz revealed the arbitrary nature of memories, and how people adjust to what Reitz called ‘living-in-spite-of-everything’:
The lesson of Heimat is that surviving and not speaking out is not monstrous but ordinary in monstrous times. Our first duty is to stop such times from ever beginning: once they are there only the great will be able to do what is right, but even the weakest can do it now.
Restoring their humanity to Germans did not make them less guilty, it merely made their guilt more human. … But for understanding, and for art which is imaginative understanding, it is necessary to see everyone’s point of view. That is Reitz’s art in Heimat – for which, therefore, he was attacked as a revisionist and reactionary. For there are no monsters in Heimat. We do not go to Auschwitz, and we meet no Nazi leaders, but stay in Lucie’s kitchen as ‘der Rosenberg, der Frick und der Ley’ meet briefly and invisibly in her parlour. But this is Reitz’s point: to show us the little people, who suffered the Nazi-zeit, not those who made it. This is not to deny that it was evil, that its leaders were evil, and that those who sustained it participated in the evil. But it is to explore it: to see how evil uses ordinary badness (like Lucie’s), and how ordinary goodness can live alongside both. Even in decent societies we must forget other people’s troubles much of the time in order to cope with our own lives. ‘There is a certain anarchic element in man and in society,’ Reitz says, ‘a principle of living-in-spite-of-everything . . . That is what I wanted to study’.
Reitz wanted to debunk the myth of the radical discontinuities of a Stunde Null, a ‘year zero’, after the war. Like others of his generation, he argued that this was a myth that had resulted in Germany’s inability to mourn. In Heimat, he set out to acknowledge the continuities in German history, despite the political rupture of 1933-45.
The last three episodes of the series bring the narrative up to the 1980s (the present at the time of filming). Central to the post-war episodes is the story of Hermann, his rejection of his family and of his heimat. He leaves Schabbach for student life in Munich after a terrible break with the family following their discovery of his sexual relationship while he was a minor with Klarchen, a secretary at Anton’s factory.
Hermann studies music in Munich and becomes an aspiring avant-garde composer, intending to put his provincial Hunsrück background far behind him. But he returns one more time, for his mother’s funeral and is inspired to compose a piece of avant-garde music that incorporates birdsong and other natural sounds from his home region. When it is broadcast, the residents of Schabbach gather around the radio to hear the piece performed, but only old Glasisch understands its meaning.
Heimat is a masterpiece of long-form television drama. Having discussed the thematic content of the series, it’s important to stress how absorbing and entertaining it is to watch, and what a magnificent achievement it is in every respect. It is beautifully photographed by Gernott Roll, mainly in black and white, but with some colour sequences. Reitz has said that he used colour to emphasise certain elements or key emotional moments, but at times the pattern does not seem obvious. Both screenplay and direction raise the series well above norm for TV drama.
Marita Breuer as Maria
The acting, too, is excellent, making each character live and breath so powerfully that you feel you have known them personally. It’s hard to single out any one performance as it’s an ensemble achievement, but Marita Breuer’s luminous performance as Maria, ageing convincingly from age 19 to 82 during the series, is magnificent. Several members of the cast had no previous experience, but were locals taken on by Reitz. Most notable are Gertrud Bredel as Katherina (an amateur actor who never left her village in the Hunsrück) and Willi Burger who played her husband, the blacksmith Mathias. (Burger died during the post-production of Heimat.)
Heimat family trees
After the success of Heimat, Reitz immediately began work on Die Zweite Heimat, broadcast on German television in 1992 and almost immediately after on BBC2. Focussing on Hermann’s student years in Munich during the 1960s, with each of the 13 episodes devoted to a single year, we are now over half way through watching it again. The Second Heimat is a series about how people make new homes for themselves in the world, for instance, by forging new friendships at university. I will write more in a future post.
Heimat 3 was broadcast in 2004 and continues the story of Hermann, now a middle-aged composer and conductor, from 1990 to 2000 as he returns to the Hunsrück to raise children of his own. At the centre of the third series are the tumultuous years that follow the end of the Cold War and German reunification, with important sub-themes concerning globalization, multiculturalism, and Germany’s relationship to its past. Last year, a prequel, Die Andere Heimat: Chronik einer Sehnsucht (Home from Home: Chronicle of a Vision), was released in German cinemas, completing the Hunsrück story by following the fortunes of branches of the Schabbach families who left for the United States and for Brazil in the late nineteenth century. The film is expected in the UK soon.
Trailer for the three series
- ‘The Life of Death’ by Timothy Garton Ash: New York Review of Books, 1985
- ‘Memory of Everyday Life‘: A Study of Edgar Reitz’s Heimat by Pehr Englén
- ‘Edgar Reitz’: lengthy article by Carole Angier from Sight & Sound in 1991 about Reitz and particularly the first two Heimat projects
- Heimat series: Wikipedia
- Heimat 123: fansite with an introduction to and (rather superficial) discussion of each episode
- The Nazis, communism and everything: article by Stuart Jeffries (Guardian, 2005)
- Die Andere Heimat: cinema prequel featuring the Simon family in the years leading up to the 1848 revolutions (Guardian)