Heimat - The Series

The Chronicle of Germany since WW1

I have given this series its own page as it has such huge status as an artistic endeavour and as a chronicle of the changes in Germany since the end of WW1. It repays repeated viewing. There's so much of it that if you watch an episode (often 1.30 long) per week it will keep you going for about 30 weeks! It has so much character, so much excellent cinematography that it will be on my repeat list forever.

There are three long series extant as at 2016, and with the recent developments in Germany, I hope Reitz can do another. He was asked after part 3 whether that was it, and he said that it's never really finished.

The story goes on, but it remains to be seen if he has the urge and the finances to do part 4!

Heimat - Three Long Movies

Quick - name the top Directors of what was known as the New German Cinema. OK, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, good. Who else? Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, Margarethe von Trotta, Volker Schlondorff. There were others, but as I alluded to one critic's statement in my piece on the TV page The Allure Of The Soap I'll use it again here.

Carole Angier started her article with these words: " In 1984 there were four world-famous German film directors: Fassbinder, Herzog, Schlondorff and Wenders. The suddenly there was a fifth, Edgar Reitz of Heimat." She goes on to do a very detailed analysis of Reitz's career, which is long and littered with projects that didn't earn him any money until recently. He's one of that hardy German breed who feel that making movies is more important than anything else. Werner Herzog is famous for shooting a documentary on an island under direct threat of a volcanic eruption. He and his crew decided that the risk of death was worth it if they were to get the results they wanted, and they did.

Reitz hasn't allowed bankruptcies or lack of critical acclaim to blunt his resolve during a period of film making that started in the 1950s. It was not until the 1980s that the first Heimat was made, and it is still an amazing piece of work. In eleven episodes he lovingly portrays the mainly agricultural people of the small Hunsruck village of Schabbach, to the west of the Rhine and adjacent to Luxemburg. He was born and grew up in this area, and his relatives included a blacksmith and a clock shop owner. The Simon family are the central characters, and they plus their village characters provide a series of snapshots, with each episode located in a particular year, commencing at the end of WW1, and covering about sixty years of developments and changes.

The switching between colour and black & white photography is supposed to have relevance, but I had difficulty seeing a pattern in the timing of the changes. The majority is in black & white, and the cinematography is superb, with those B&W images beautifully captured. Despite its 4:3 framing, this should be a cinema experience, and is, particularly now I've seen it on a 50" plasma, and with good sound. I first watched it on an old cathode ray tube TV, and this time around it was a whole new experience.

One of Reitz's aims was to show the human side of the German people, and he does this to perfection in both the first and second series. In both there are portrayals of local nazi office bearers or sympathisers, giving rise to some sarcastic and humorous moments. In both series there are what my friend Ralph Waters termed "SBS moments", when the female form is shown freely and, I think, tastefully.

At the end of the first series we see Hermann heading off to Munich and the conservatoire, to start his musical studies in order to become a composer, and we see a "flash forward" when years later he returns to Schabbach for his mother's funeral. The second series centres around those years in Munich, first at the conservatoire, and then in employment and marriage. It has a number of main characters, and each in turn gets the primary focus of an episode, without losing touch with the group dynamic. The nazi past haunts the post-WW2 generation, and emerges in several of the main characters in unexpected but believable ways. There's no anguish or recrimination - Reitz is not out to send anyone on a guilt trip, they did that to themselves for a long time. But there's no glossing over the failures of character either.

This time, on the big screen, was my second foray into Heimat 2, as a preparation for Heimat 3, which is the last twenty years of the 20th Century. It was so much more complete than I remember it being, so I may have missed some of the broadcast episodes, but more likely the version which SBS ran here was edited. There seems to be so much more linkage, and I found the sequences of events in the characters' lives more understandable. Sadly, I have just read that Heimat 3 is issued on DVD in an edited form. Now they tell me! I'm about to start that, and would have preferred to see the complete thing. You get to enjoy the longeur of this approach.

Heimat One is set mainly in the small Hunsruck village of Schabbach, and commences at the end of WW1 with the son arriving home to find his old dad, as ever, at work in the blacksmith's shop. It is a rural community, and there are many scenes of simple country life. But there is a keen eye for local politics as well, and ultimately, during the war years, some of the characters become Nazis - although not the scary type, more the buffoon local administrator. Rietz spent his schildhood in just such a place, so there's an element of autobiography here. His fondness for people, while seeing their foibles, is a large part of the charm of this entire work. He's describing Germany by taking a forensic slice and putting it under the microscope.

Heimat 2 conveys the 1960s in detail, with the cars on the road, the characters, the occasional riot and even a cameo by some Baader-Meinhoff gang personnel. Music has a starring role, and the filmed performances are convincing. They vary from some fairly way-out avan-guard things to a stunning version (incomplete as it is) of the Ravel piano concerto for left hand. The other pursuit which has prominence is the emerging New German Cinema. This also receives a light touch, with an autobiographical thread running through it. VariaVision was a real multi-screen project that Reitz was involved in.

In my short piece The Series That Ate Hollywood (see below), about Alan Sepinwall's theory (that TV took over the role of presenting interesting stories, at length, and movies became trashier) the emergence of long series that you can't miss any of is a key element of the "new television". But how new is this really? Casting my mind back to the 1960s, there was The Forsyte Saga, then in the seventies A Family At War, then later we had the excellent Brideshead Revisited. The extending of The Lord Of The Rings into three long movies, (and now even The Hobbit) confirms that longer treatments are not only justified, but saleable.

I will add to this when I've finished watching Heimat 3. But once again, this is a series that hits me every time I watch it. The filming (all on location!), the acting, the feeling for those decades and the German character, the artistic angles. It keeps me coming back for more.


Edgar Rietz's Heimat series is not to be confused with a soapy in the ordinary sense. It covers nearly a century of German history, but zeros in on a family from the Hunsruck region, the Simon family. Rietz is a prime example of not giving up easily. He's been through some ups and downs himself during his long career in film making, and emerged as a fully-fledged filmic genius, up there with the big names of the "new" German cinema. It's not new any more, but he is still going, while some of them are not.

He's a true auteur, writing his own scripts, directing the films - and that term is appropriate. Despite achieving success via television, his work is decidedly cinematic in form, scope and quality - in fact the quality of the writing, direction and cinematography is all of the highest order. If only more films in my local cinema were this good!

I've just finished watching Heimat 3, which starts in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin wall and the reunification of Hermann Simon and Clarissa Lichtblau, the un-starcrossed lovers of series 2. There's a moment of disbelief in the way they meet by chance and pick up where they left off so many years before, but we get over that pretty quickly, because the narrative is bigger than that, and Germany was undergoing a singular experience. He captures to joy of that time, and the gradual adaptation of the East Germans to the new world.

The musical spine of series 2 remains intact, with both Hermann and Clarissa now successful, he as a pianist and conductor, she as a singer. There are numerous short interludes where once again Rietz allows the music to star. But the story rolls onwards and backwards at the same time. Series 2 was for the most part outside the Hunsruck, while series 3 goes right back in there.

They set up house not far from the old village of Shabbach, in a setting with spectacular views over the Rhine River, in sight of the Lorelai Rock. Vineyards slope down from their escarpment position, and the traditional home is restored from a pidgeon-infested ruin to a superb domicile for two professionals.

This is the backdrop for the comings and goings of characters old and new. Some are drafted in from the poorer East, while others from Series 1 come back, which is a particular pleasure. Hermann's brothers, who he has avoided for quite a while, play significant parts in this new series. They are the link back to earlier times, along with Clarissa's mum, and a cameo from Hermann's first wife Waltraud (Schnussen!) and they all give the new series an authenticity which it might otherwise have struggled to obtain with just Hermann and Clarissa.

The look of Heimat 3 is modern, being much more in colour, and in 16:9, whereas the first two series were 4:3 and leaned more towards black and white, with some bursts of colour. That b&w was never a problem, as the cinematography has always been superb, intriguing, and given full rein. It's a gargantuan production which you could watch just for the photography!

The feel of H3 is more fun, even a bit more soapy at times. But it retains its grip on gravitas, and even has echoes of Wagner's Gotterdammerung, the twilight of the gods. Series one and two were haunted by the Nazis while people tried to get on with their lives. The Nazis are well and truly dead by 1989, and the communists are shown the door with all due haste.

Brother Ernst's treasure trove of great master's paintings is hidden underground, and is even referred to in the script as his "Nibelung" treasure. It is subjected to flooding, just as the ring is returned to the Rhine-maidens in a flooding of that great river.

There are deaths too, not only of the old, and a feeling that things are moving on. At the party to celebrate the millennium, some old relationships are reforged, while others are on the point of disintegration. The series ends on a sombre note, which is very European.

When asked whether there'd be more in the Heimat series, Rietz at first said no. But then he thought about it and said that really, a series like this was never completed. History rolls onward, and if he's able, he may make some more of it. I hope so, as I value all of his expertise, and particularly his empathy with people of all sorts, which makes his writing so good.