'I had no idea how big Heimat would be'
The third instalment of the epic German film project spanning the lives of hundreds of characters is about to be released. Sheila Johnston talks to its creator.
I have just asked Edgar Reitz an impossible question to sum up Heimat. "There is no concept for what I do," he answers, in his quiet and deliberate manner. "You can't describe in one word. I had no idea at the beginning how big it would be, but it has become a huge work, and I hope it will be understood. And loved."
The German writer-director is talking about a staggering project which is about to come to fruition. In 1984, Heimat, more than 15 hours of it, was a sensation at the Venice Film Festival and played in Britain to record audiences, in cinemas and on television. A sequel, even longer, followed in 1992. And now the long-awaited third Heimat will receive its world première in Venice next week. Combined, they run over 54 hours, track hundreds of major characters and take in the defining events of the 20th century.
Reitz's offices are on the mezzanine floor of a well-preserved Jugendstil building in Schwabing, a leafy bohemian suburb of Munich. By rights, these premises should be at panic stations when we meet there earlier this month. There are press books to finish in time for Venice and a 650-page novelisation to edit, as well as an even mightier tome with 1,800 production stills from all three series: Heimat has spawned a small industry of spin-offs and memorabilia.
But Reitz seems happy to chat for hours over coffee in his little kitchen, puttering off at one point to look out yet another of his books and altogether behaving as though the pressure were very much off. His air of seriousness is punctured at moments with flashes of a sudden, disarming smile.
Tall, with thick hair and a greying beard, he could, at 72, comfortably pass for two decades younger.
Some reviewers called the first Heimat a sort of European supersoap, a smarter version of Dallas. Reitz shrugs. "Just because people say that doesn't mean it's true. They try to find a drawer to put it in. But then they find it doesn't fit there after all."
To label it an event movie is an understatement, too; there is nothing to touch it in world cinema. To find a comparable narrative sweep, one needs to look to the great novel cycles of the 19th and early 20th century: Galsworthy's Forsyte Saga, perhaps, Trollope's Barchester Chronicles, or Balzac's Human Comedy.
Heimat is an evocative word with connotations of "home" or "homeland", and a Romantic sense of a lost, Utopian past. For Germans, it is also deeply compromised: Heimat 1, in particular, touched on the tarnish that attached itself to the nation-state after the Third Reich and the division of the country. However, Reitz rejects any suggestion that he is the chronicler of his era. "I see myself not as an historian but as an epic story-teller.
Reality is an interesting thing, but poetic truth is truer."
The secret of his work's enduring universal appeal lies elsewhere, in its subtle view of the interplay between history's vast canvas and the close-knit texture of people's lives. And above all in his knack for creating infinite chains of addictive stories and fascinating, fully-rounded and unpredictable characters, whom he tracks from their births to their deathbeds.
In 1962 Reitz was one of the signatories of the Oberhausen Manifesto, a call to arms and demand for public funding by young wannabe directors. Few went on to do anything of note, but they helped revive the ailing German cinema and pave the way for later high-flyers such as Wenders, Fassbinder and Herzog. Reitz himself directed a handful of features, well received enough at home but little seen abroad. It was when one of these, The Tailor of Ulm (1978), was a resounding flop that he retreated to lick his wounds and started writing about his childhood in the rural Rhineland. Gradually the plotlines multiplied, the characters took on an existence of their own and Reitz blossomed from being an obscure footnote in German film history into a visionary who has made this project his lifetime's vocation.
The first Heimat covered the rise of Nazism and the post-war economic miracle, as experienced by one extended family, the Simons, living in a fictional hamlet called Schabbach. H2 moved to Munich in the '60s and a looser-knit group of artists, intellectuals and terrorists. "My grandparents were peasants and my father was a watchmaker [like one of the minor characters in H1]. The second series was about young people who left their families and formed relationships in the big city, and that's mainly my own story."
While making H2 in 1989, Reitz unsuccessfully sought permission to film in the narrow strip of the GDR which then separated West Germany from West Berlin. Two days before the scenes were due to be shot, the Berlin Wall crumbled. "We said to ourselves, 'It fell just for us and our film.' I decided then that I had to continue with Heimat 3. History overtook me and I kept reacting to it."
The third Heimat brings back several key figures, principally Hermann, the love child of Maria, matriarch of the Simon dynasty. At the end of H1, he left Schabbach after a thwarted teenage love affair; in H2, he starts a new life in Munich and becomes a famous avant-garde composer. In H3, Hermann and his lover return to the Rhineland, where they buy and restore a house in an attempt to establish a new Heimat. "The need is strong to create a human nest and the house is meant to be a new centre of their lives. But it's full of crises because this is very different from when you are born into a tradition."
Reitz examines the significance of Heimat for a freshly reunified Germany, under the impact of mass migration from the former GDR and other Eastern bloc countries. "When we shot the first Heimat, a lot of people could still remember villages with peasant families who never left them throughout their lives. Today, people don't stay in the same spot any more; they are at home all over the world."
So have Germans lost their roots? "Yes," he replies instantly. "In 1989 there was an incredible euphoria, and then we won the football World Cup the following year, which meant a lot too. We rebuilt towns in the East like Dresden or Leipzig; it was an incredible economic achievement. People found a new happiness and purpose. Five years later it was all over.
In a world in which borders have disappeared and only money is the measure of success, everyone has become sad. Instead of seeing things as a chance, they only talk about the risks. Of course Germans laugh when they're sitting in a Biergarten, but when you look more closely, they are all afraid, especially the younger ones, of losing their job, of not being able to pay their rent. They can't see their future any more. That is the mood I'm describing and it's why it has become a rather melancholy film."
The story ends at the turn of the millennium. But Reitz was overtaken once more by history when, on September 11 2001, the world moved on again. He dreams of charting these changes.
I would continue with Heimat at once if I could. There's no shortage of stories, only of money there's no money in Germany, especially for culture". It took nine years to raise funding for H3, and he ended up having ruthlessly to scale back the original script (it still runs over 11 hours). "At the moment it would be almost impossible to make a fourth series. People laugh at the very idea."
Reitz has only been able to indulge his vision at all thanks to backing from German broadcasters. But he insists television is not Heimat's natural habitat. "Television hasn't the time to tell stories. And there's no calm around it; it's in the kitchen or living room, among all the noise of daily life. For story-telling,people need a special, safe place, and the feeling of being removed from the world."
He takes particular pleasure in the imminent reissue of his work on DVD. "The real medium for it is on DVD and in home cinema, which is still developing. We need much better quality than videocassettes can offer.
"In future, we'll tell great, great stories and people will choose when they see them, and invite friends over to watch with them. You don't read a novel in a single day. You take it on holiday and read 10 pages a day on the beach a beautiful book can last you for the whole trip. It will be the same with films like Heimat. You will always remember when and where you saw them, and why."
'Heimat 3' will be shown at the Venice Film Festival, which begins on Wed. The first Heimat will be released on DVD by Tartan Video on Oct 25.
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