After completing our odyssey through the first two series of Edgar Reitz’s epic Heimat, we approached Heimat 3 with great anticipation. However, although it has its moments, this stage of the saga which takes the story of its characters as far as the millennium, did not attain the majestic heights of the earlier seasons. Indeed, towards the end disappointment shaded into embarrassment.
I knew already of the problems that Reitz had had with the German TV company that financed and produced the series – the second Heimat had not attracted the same audience figures as the first, and so Reitz was forced to reduce his original plan for 11 episodes of feature-film length down to six episodes of a standard 80 minutes. One perceptible result is the telescoping of narrative developments and the curtailing of the slow, in-depth character development that made the first two series such an intense experience. Another must surely be the soap-style melodrama that blights two episodes including the final one.
The effect of the telescoping of narrative is evident from the start as Hermann and Clarissa – the couple who in Die Zweite Heimat are constantly drawn toward each other but, like electrons, seem destined to always push the other away – meet again after twenty years in a chance encounter in a hotel lobby. It’s Berlin on the evening of 9 November 1989, and news of the opening of the Wall is spreading like wildfire. One of the joys of the first two series was watching Reitz handle crowd scenes, the camera weaving through the throng, following characters in a ballet of noise and movement. Here the couple bump into each other rather than in a hotel lobby rather than amongst the jubilant crowds. Apparently Reitz had shot an hour of film that was never used (presumably because of the constraints set by the TV company), which covered a whole day in Berlin in which Hermann and Clarissa celebrated the fall of the Wall.
That would certainly have given more depth and credence to their reunion. It might also have meant that we would not have had the somewhat ridiculous plot-line which means that by the end of the first episode the couple have decided to build a new house back in the Hunsrück. We might also have enjoyed scenes in which we could see their relationship developed more credibly. There is barely a hint of their former troubled relationship. Indeed, watching Heimat 3 it is almost as if the events of Die Zweite Heimat never happened and its characters and their friendships never existed.
Heimat 3: the Günderodehaus before and after (it’s now a restaurant)
So, at least at first, it all seems like a clean break with the past. Hermann and Clarissa identify as their new home the ruined Günderodehaus which occupies a stunning position overlooking the Rhine gorge. With money seeming no option they immediately set about turning the ruin into a luxurious home with the assistance of freshly-liberated East German tradesmen and craftsmen. Gunnar, Udo, Tobi and Tillmann bring their craft and technical skills to the project (presumably at very competitive rates) and the refurbishment is complete in an astonishing seven months. (I know the Germans are efficient, but surely not?) There is time for only limited development of the East Germans’ characters, and I did wonder how far these four – and especially Gunnar – might appear as stereotyped caricatures to a German audience. Having said that, Tobi – a hippyish skilled craftsman with a nonconformist, anti-authority outlook – was a very convincing and likeable character.
Heimat 3: Matko
Nevertheless, there are many good scenes in Heimat 3, and the best are associated with the return to Schabbach and in particular the fortunes of the Simon family which becomes the focus of the series. I particularly enjoyed the way in which the character of Hermann’s half-brother Ernst was developed, and thought his scenes were among the very best. After his falling-out with his brother Anton he has become a reclusive, but clearly very wealthy, collector of art works acquired in somewhat dubious circumstances. The art is stored in secure containers deep in the old Schabbach quarry, while Ernst, ever the somewhat mischievous nonconformist, still flies aircraft and has his own private landing strip. An important storyline concerns Ernst’s affection for Matko, a young refugee from the war in Bosnia, who is both adventurous and sensitive.
Just as in the first two seasons, Reitz’s storylines reflect the changes in Germany following reunification in 1990. There’s a mood of exhilaration at the beginning of the series that soon begins to darken. Through the story of Anton and his family, Reitz seems to comment on a growing obsession with wealth and lifestyle through the brash, selfish nineties. Anton and his fractious relations are portrayed as a greedy, vulgar crowd, concerned only with money, smart houses and fast cars. There are some pretty dreadful scenes that expose the Simon family dynamics – though they drift pretty close at times to pure soap opera.
So, as the series progresses, relationships fail, Anton’s business falls victim to globalised markets, and there is illness and death, suicides and tragic accidents. But the way in which Reitz makes his characters stand for developments in Germany – whether members of the Simon family or immigrants newly-arrived in the Hunsruck from former East Germany or Russian Germans returning to their ancestral Heimat but still attached to Russian language and culture – is a lot less convincing than in the two earlier series.
Heimat 3: Gunnar
In the second film, set in 1990, Reitz shows how the fall of the Wall and reunification offer new opportunities for the East Germans. After the work on the house is complete, Gunnar travels to Berlin where, in a highly entertaining sequence, he becomes a ‘wall-pecker’ millionaire, successfully marketing boxed fragments of the Wall to Warner Brothers as gifts that can be given away to clients. His workforce consists for a while of Vietnamese students stranded after the collapse of the communist regime. In fact, this is an episode full of comedy, with Ernst and Tobi reviewing redundant GDR army equipment at a military base awaiting closure, and Ernst acquiring a similarly-redundant statue of Lenin which then makes its stately way through the streets of Germany on the back of his lorry. The latter scene reminded me of a similar one in Ulysses’ Gaze by the late Greek film director Angelopolous, in which a statue of Lenin is ferried slowly down the Danube.
Heimat 3: Lenin’s progress
As I’ve already remarked, Reitz continues to weave into his characters’ stories the social changes that were taking place in Germany in the nineties. Along with the arrival of refugees from Russia and the Balkan wars, and the predatory asset stripping of small German firms like Simon Optics, Reitz also incorporates the protests by Hunsruckers against the deployment of cruise missiles at a US military base there (although, as far as I know, these took place before 1989, at roughly the same time as the Greenham Common protests here). The missile base finally closed in August 1993, and in episode three Reitz stages a memorable scene (featuring one of the protest leaders, a local pastor who plays himself) which I can still see in my mind’s eye. At dusk, protesters watch from a hillside as giant cargo planes lift off from the illuminated airfield below.
But, although Heimat 3 does contain some superb sequences, I became increasingly exasperated with its soap opera tendencies and the pure melodrama of episode 6, with its two spectacular suicides, and the final part with its unconvincing earthquake and flood. The Millennium celebration at the Günderodehaus (organised and funded by Gunnar from his prison cell) failed to resonate. And when the series ends with Hermann’s daughter Lulu later weeping at a window, the moment seems gratuitous.
- Die Zweite Heimat: a longing for escape
- Heimat: unreliable memories and ‘living-in-spite-of-everything‘
- Angela Skrimshire’s appreciation of the Heimat films (pdf, 1,41 MB)