When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, hopes were high. On 10 November 1989 politician Walter Momper said, ‘We Germans are the happiest people in the world.’ This line is the title of the first episode of German director Edgar Reitz’s impressive 12 million Heimat 3, the third instalment of a 54 hour long TV and cinema epic following the fortunes of a family, a village and a country.
In a recent poll 24 percent of west Germans said they wished the Berlin Wall was still intact. A smaller number of east Germans agreed. Germany no longer prides itself on being the land of milk and honey, and the 1.2 trillion spent ‘modernising’ the east appears ill spent.
The first series of Heimat (which translates roughly as ‘Homeland’) was an international success. Centred on the Simon family’s life from the First World War until 1982, its core episodes detailed the impact of Nazism on a rural village and contributed to the much-debated task of a collective ‘working through of the past’. The second, less successful, series, Zweite Heimat (1992), focused on the 1960s, following Hermann Simon to Munich in the years of student revolution, terrorism and cultural change. The third series, shown in Germany at the end of 2004, follows the lives of a handful of representatives of the citizenry of united Germany from 1989 until the eve of the new millennium. Conceived together with east German novelist Thomas Brussig, Heimat 3 begins with the fall of the Berlin Wall. This dramatic episode in German history is just the most recent in a century of twists and turns, ugly events and revolutionary moments.
The centre of the action in Heimat 3 is symbolically charged. Two characters, prominent from series 2, Hermann and Clarissa, meet again in the festive days when east Germans have forced their government to allow freedom of travel. In these days of reunification and promised new beginnings, Hermann and Clarissa find and renovate a tumbledown old house, said to have belonged to a Romantic poet, Karoline von Günderode. It overlooks the Rhine, not too far from where Hermann grew up. What could be more ‘German’ than this half-timbered house above Germany’s famed river, indeed overlooking the Lorelei, site of an enduring German legend?
This is Heimat‘s home and hearth, a place that is as much mythical as tangible. Here, at the heart of Germanness, used by our two main characters as a base for their global travels as celebrated and highly paid classical musicians, all the tensions of capitalist modernity emerge. First, the very renovation of the house draws on the labour of the new Germans (east Germans representing the working class, in much the same erroneous way as northerners do in Britain). Their prices are cheap and their expertise is high. The house is made whole again, just as is Germany in a sense, but cracks and fissures and old spectres emerge, not only in the house and the relationships that develop in proximity to it, but also in the economy.
And this perfect German idyll lies atop a military base where the US army tends its F16s in readiness for new wars. But the fall of the wall does bring changes and the US army retreat from this base in preparation for a New World Order. As they leave, into their abandoned base come the ethnic Germans from the east, eager to ‘return’ to a home, a Heimat, they only dreamt of and whose language they barely speak. Nation exerts a mythical power. Such myths are faulty. The house overlooking the Rhine was never in the possession of a Romantic poet; the unified German nation does not produce the happiest nation in the world.
Much of the drama of the third series revolves around loss, sadness, perplexing change, death by new diseases and natural disaster. East and west Germans alike make fortunes and lose them in uncertain times. The house and the region are subjected to the forces of globalising economics, as the village patriarch Anton Simon dies and his optics firm goes under in a new global market.
But the main focus of the series is cultural. Clarissa breaks with the classical tradition in music and attempts crossover classical-rock cabaret. Her punishment for this cultural betrayal appears to be throat cancer. Hermann, proponent of the new electronic music in the second series, loses the ability to compose, but a serious accident brings back his muse, and allows him to compose Schubert-style Romantic lieder (art songs), based on the Günderode poems.
Solace is sought in the past. A disaster in an elaborate underground art gallery belonging to Hermann’s brother destroys part of the village and the careers of some of the family. Reitz has described his project as exploring ‘the loss of our cultural identity’ as geographical mobility increases. Ironically the region where Heimat was beautifully filmed hopes to benefit from increased tourism. So as the project attempts to debunk myths it becomes unwittingly exploited by the service industry to repackage them.
In Heimat (1984) Reitz developed a mode of storytelling that intertwines intimate family histories and world-historical events in a style reminiscent of Thomas Mann’s panoramic narratives. History translated into drama enmeshes the lives of individuals in a wider social world. Heimat 3 is compelling and addictive, precisely because in following the characters’ fate we see our own recent histories played out. This is a rare treat in TV and cinema.
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