The controversy surrounding Taika Waititi’s recently Oscar nominated satire on Nazi Germany, JoJo Rabbit, demonstrates that dramatic portrayals of Hitler and the era of the Third Reich still risks causing offence. This was even more so 35 years ago when the first series of writer/director Edgar Reitz’s 54-hour German TV film series, Heimat (literally ‘homeland’ – although the word’s idiomatic significance cannot be precisely translated) was aired. Heimat remains compulsive viewing, and well worth the investment of time, chronicling eight decades of 20th-century German history. The sheer scale of the endeavour is impressive, verging on Wagnerian in its epic scope. One can only imagine the experience of audiences when the first series was released cinematically as a single 15-hour German language film in the 1980s. The cinematography, artfully moving between black and white and colour film, is beautiful, and never seems contrived.
The first series, while critically praised and winning a BAFTA and awards at the Venice Film Festival, polarised opinion for its focus on “ordinary” German life in the interwar and Second World War periods. The story takes place largely, although not entirely, away from the horrors of the camps and the battlefields. Instead, it subtly addressed Germany’s complex relationship with its past, unafraid to present characters sympathetically, despite the crimes being perpetrated on their behalf. Although the enormous historic, cultural, political, economic and sociological significance of events don’t impinge too crudely on the lives of the characters, this is not an exercise in dreamy nostalgia.
Series 1 is primarily set in the fictional village of Schabbach in the Hunsruck region of the Rhineland, where Reitz grew up. The action is firmly located in its rural setting, focussing on the farmhouse and forge of the blacksmith, Matthias Simon, although there are occasional forays into the wider world. Foremost among these departures is that of Paul Simon, Matthias’ son, who inexplicably leaves his wife Maria and his young sons to live in the USA. The ensuing domestic crisis runs in parallel with the turbulent events of the ’30s and ‘40s and sees Maria develop into the matriarch of the Simon family. Her difficult relationships with her 3 sons – Anton, the industrialist, replicating in Germany the technocratic success of his father; Ernst, the restless drifter, endlessly involved in madcap schemes of debatable legality; and Hermann, the brilliant young student with dreams of being a composer – form the backbone of the first series. That said, its generous length allows many intertwined subplots and brilliant supporting characters to develop along with the main protagonists.
Although the Hunsruck itself appears as a rural idyll, historical events takes place nearby, with scenes of anti-Semitic violence in a nearby town, the arrest of communist sympathisers on a visit to relatives in the Ruhr and glimpses of concentration camp internees engaged in forced physical labour in the construction of the nearby autobahn in the late 1930’s. But the focus is not on the victims of genocide. Even so, through its portrayal of lives lived, the films suggest that the myopia of “ordinary people” engrossed in their daily lives allowed the active perpetrators to carry out their evil acts. There is a strong suggestion that secluded communities such as Schabbach may have been largely ignorant of Nazi policies such as the Final Solution; when ex-SS officer Wilfried makes remarks about Jews and chimneys, no one enquires too deeply. However, on occasion characters are present when terrible things happen but look away, such as when Anton, as a camera technician in a propaganda film unit on the eastern front, concentrates on cleaning his lenses and equipment while his colleagues film a massacre. This suggests that millions of small acts of moral cowardice facilitated the Holocaust and poses the uncomfortable question: would we act differently?
Although the centre of the fictional world holds in the first series tensions are building. Maria’s deteriorating relationship with Hermann (her third son to Otto, a part-Jewish motorway engineer killed in the course of his wartime position as a bomb disposal expert) propels the narrative into the second season.
In Heimat 2, home is rejected and lost. The village of Schabbach is left behind as we follow Hermann in his music studies at the conservatoire in Munich and his career as a young composer. We see a rapidly recovering Germany of the late 1950s and 1960s, still haunted by its fascist past, gradually shaking off the trauma of defeat and atrocities committed in the name of their nation. Hermann encounters an array of intense, artistic, intellectual, avant-garde characters who influence each other’s lives in many ways. Passion, jealousy, self-absorption, ambition, loneliness, insecurity and the fear of not fulfilling one’s potential through wrong paths taken all run through their entangled, troubled relationships.
Two-hour episodes are each devoted to a particular character such as the energetic, impulsive yet melancholic Juan from Chile, a ghost-like observer of the group made up of musicians, writers, philosophers, filmmakers and actresses. Questions of belonging and identity underlie their damaged psyches, tested in different ways to that of their parents, yet still asking the same fundamental questions. The intense lives of these talented, tortured students have occasional tragic consequences- accidental deaths, backstreet abortions, suicide attempts and involvement in terrorist acts through extreme political organisations such as the far left militant Baader-Meinhof movement. Of the three series, Heimat 2 is perhaps the most artistically ambitious and satisfying. The characters drift in and out of focus developing, sometimes in close-up, sometimes in the background or off-screen. We aren’t spoon fed- keeping up with all of the comings and goings takes effort but is part of the pleasure.
Underpinning Heimat 2 is the troubled tale of Hermann’s fraught relationship with Clarissa, a fellow music student and precociously talented concert cellist. Their magnetic attraction and repeated repulsion has a metaphysical feel. The theme of home returns, however, as the artistic friends are welcomed into an opulent suburban villa, Foxholes, where a reclusive heiress, Madame Cerphal provides open house for die Künstlern to act out their quarrels and love affairs. Foxholes is a haven which harbours a dark secret and one which belies the accusation that Heimat fails to confront the events of the Nazi era. The shadowy figure of Gattinger, Madam Cerphal’s ambiguous companion, haunts this time. His story culminates in a visit to Dachau with his daughter, Esther, in search of closure to the harrowing tale of her Jewish mother’s death at the hand of the Nazi’s; Esther is appalled at it sanitisation for tourists.
Heimat 3 takes up the story in the late 1980’s with the fall of the Berlin Wall and returns to the Hunsrück and the family drama of the Simon clan. The intensity of feelings about home, of displacement, finding a new Heimat and of leaving and returning home recur in all series. Although shorter and more fragmentary than the preceding series, there is much to recommend the third series. Hermann and Clarissa find each other after years of globetrotting as international musicians and immediately become lovers – something their younger selves were unable to commit to. With variable success, they build a new life together with the constant flux of their messy extended families and careers playing out against a backdrop of German reunification and the turn of the third millennium.
Their dream project of building a house on the edge of the Hunsrück – on a spectacular site overlooking the Rhine – reorients the action of the first series. Schabbach now seems to be located on a plateau, above and beyond the earthly world. This echoes the first series when the village has a mythic, other-worldly quality- often it is approached on foot, through mists and the traveller/viewer is greeted by an envoy such as Glasisch, the village’s eccentric, alcoholic chronicler or Hans, the one-eyed child marksman who dies in the war. That said, Schabbach is now far from its rural past- the forge is silent and cold and the Simon family, especially Anton’s, is riven with squabbles and resentments over inheritance as asset strippers reduce the company to bankruptcy. The onset of global politics is evident as the surrounding area is occupied by an American military airfield; when vacated with the fall of communism, there is an influx of Russians and East Germans. Characters such as Gunnar chase the capitalist dream, selling parts of the broken-down Berlin Wall to companies, becoming a millionaire yet not securing personal happiness.
Heimat is an important cinematic landmark. Ultimately, however, the compulsive nature of its viewing is due to the collection of compelling stories. Reitz is credited with giving Germans their hidden stories back and allowing a process of assessment and national healing. Time specific in setting yet timeless in themes and characters, Heimat still holds intense power.