Spiegel Spezial on Reitz, entitled 'On History'. It includes a brief profile of his career at the beginning and a lengthy interview. Reitz mentions the launch of heimat.net at the Hannover Expo.
Interview with Edgar Reitz on the planned continuation of his Heimat project
Edgar Reitz, clockmaker's son from the Hunsrück town Simmern, born in 1932, founded the Institut fur Filmgestaltung [Institute of Film Design] with Alexander Kluge in 1962, part of the Hochschule fur Gestaltung [College of Design] in Ulm. That same year, in the so-called Oberhausener Manifest [Oberhausen Manifesto], under the slogan "Dad's cinema is dead!", encouraged a new generation to shape the future of film - Reitz counted among the instigators. His first feature film Mahlzeiten was awarded best debut film at the Venice Festival in 1967, but his path following that was rather unfortunate. Long term success was not enjoyed by the Oberhausen group, but by a group of younger filmmakers (Schlondorff, Herzog, Wenders, Fassbinder) instead. It was only in 1984 with Heimat that Reitz finally achieved success, a Hunsrück village tale, spanning from 1919 to 1982, eleven films (16 hours in total) which had about 10m viewers for each episode on its initial broadcast for ARD. In 1992 Die Zweite Heimat (13 films, 26 hours long) followed, now more clearly autobiographical in its portrayal of his student years in Munich. For some time now, Reitz has been preparing a third Heimat project that will cover the nineties with the Hunsrück as its setting again. It is uncertain when shooting will start, as although several foreign TV companies have confirmed production contribution, the ARD has not yet come to a decision.
SPEZIAL: Mr Reitz, for twenty years 'Heimat' has been the title and central theme of your life's work, an autobiographically based film cycle, which is gradually turning into a chronicle of the century. Do you still remember the original idea, that decisive moment when this seemingly incomparable project began?
Reitz: And how! Only too well! In 1978 I had just released by far my most expensive film to date, which I, as producer, had put up more money for than ever before, Der Schneider von Ulm and it was a complete flop in cinemas. Even the Spiegel made its contribution with a damning critique. I had reached a low point in my work like never before.
SPEZIAL: How much did productions like that cost in those days?
REITZ: Three to four million. Anyway, I was so broke that I was pleased when some friends offered to let me spend New Year in their holiday home on Sylt. There, I had a great amount of time to think about my disaster. I asked myself, why me, grandson of a Hunsrück farmer, son of a Hunsrück craftsman, why didn't I just stay at home instead of going abroad and taking up this filmmaking career which has only ever brought me bad luck? That wasn't what I had been born into. I went back deeper and deeper into my family history, as if I wanted to find the source of all my bad luck and at some point I started to write it all down. I kept writing and writing, there on Sylt and couldn't stop, while outside it kept snowing and snowing.
SPEZIAL: So the Hunsrück saved you from your bewilderment?
REITZ: It was that mad winter of 1978-9, when the whole of Schleswig-Holstein was buried so deeply in snow that the army were the only ones who could clear the roads to some towns. But I wasn't worried about being snowed in because I was buried in my Hunsrück world. I stayed on Sylt until the end of February, then I took the train - I no longer had a car because of how much the film had lost - to the Berlin Film Festival. I met an old friend from the WDR [Westdeutscher Rundfunk] there who asked me how it was going and I answered 'I've found an oil well under my parents' house! '
SPEZIAL: He must have thought you'd lost your mind.
REITZ: He didn't quite say that. He became the producer of Heimat, and later Die Zweite Heimat, Joachim von Mengershausen. I'm always amazed when I hear from colleagues how hard it is for them to find material for a film or to believe in their material. I haven't had that problem since the day I discovered my source. Quite the opposite, it seems as if I've only told the tail-end of what there is. I could tell the story over and over and never be afraid of the material running out.
SPEZIAL: But isn't this autobiographical focus rather questionable?
REITZ: Not at all. It's about something more fundamental than that. It's the question of whether a story has a kind of life, a kind of truth, or not. Whether it has substance. One must be able to sense that. I'm not convinced that all those clever script doctors who give lectures on narrative tricks and techniques in film schools will set an unsure young person on the right path. Most students are only led away from themselves by these recipes for special effects. Someone with a feeling for it realises when a story is being constructed, even when the details have been cleverly doctored so as to make it appear more alive. A different story, however, will emerge effortlessly because it has life within it. True narrative art is deep within the roots of a person themselves. But I'll admit that I've gone down the wrong road myself before realising that.
SPEZIAL: For a few years now, you've apparently been involved in the preparations for a third Heimat part, and in an interview you've said that it might not end up being a film cycle with TV as its primary broadcast medium but a kind of endless narrative project with the internet as public forum instead. Was this just playing around with ideas or something more?
REITZ: It was more than that. The ambitious dreams I had then! Two or three years ago a real digital age philosophy was blossoming and there were clever people who said one could and would have to re-invent the world from one day to the next. This has fascinated me for a while now, but everyone who is intensively involved with it has come to realise that these things take much longer to develop than it seemed at first. And most of all, people don't change as quickly as that. The internet won't be a published medium for writers or film makers for a long time yet.
SPEZIAL: Aren't there arrangements being made for something called Heimat.net?
REITZ: Right. It's in development, as is inevitable. You cannot imagine how many viewers' letters I got in the years between 1993 and 1995 after Heimat and even more after Die Zweite Heimat. It was enough to drive anyone to despair. Because you want to appear friendly, you try to answer every letter at first, but at some point you realise that it's not only taking up time but costing money, too. Who's going to pay the postage for 15,000 letters? You just throw your hands up in despair. Some letter writers want precise answers, for example, about an old car that appeared in the film, or a costume or language feature. Others, prompted by Heimat, tell me whole family histories, perhaps in the hope that I would use it to make another film. In the last few weeks another wave of these letters has come from Argentina because Die Zweite Heimat has just been shown again there.
SPEZIAL: Do the people in foreign countries who write these letters mostly have German origins?
REITZ: With the first Heimat that was inevitably the case. The central theme of Die Zweite Heimat isn't specifically German on the other hand, it's about being young, about searching for real life, about the question of one' s own genius. In Germany, the resonance of Die Zweite Heimat was weaker than the first.
SPEZIAL: It would seem that that shows how TV viewing habits have changed in the course of the last decade by the arrival of private channels.
REITZ: Certainly. But certainly lots of viewers weren't just disappointed because it wasn't just the same thing again and also because it wasn't as nostalgic, not as specifically German. But that's precisely why I think today, Die Zweite Heimat has had markedly greater success abroad than the first one. My good intentions of answering letters were exhausted when I could no longer read them, French, English, Spanish, some with photos, some a dozen or even a hundred pages long.
SPEZIAL: What on earth do you do with them all?
REITZ: That's exactly why, as before, the internet is a wonderful invention. It's an international forum for the exchange of such material. I only realised that myself when I found out about websites where enthusiasts I don 't know are collecting material on Heimat and Die Zweite Heimat - a Dutch group, for example, that uses a Utrecht university server, or a Canadian community who graphically work stills from Heimat in a peculiar and aesthetically pleasing way.
SPEZIAL: In short, what the fan clubs used to do is happening on the internet?
REITZ: More or less. The collation and cross-referencing of all these activities is what we're doing on Heimat.net. There's also going to be a database which will answer any question about costumes or old cars, contemporary material will be on it too, on my Hunsrück home and of course we want to try and publish everything that we have collected as a result of Heimat, long letters or autobiographical pieces. More than anything it will have to keep growing and be open to anybody to make any contribution.
SPEZIAL: You say 'we'. Who is 'we'?
REITZ: The Berlin company MediaCube is a driving force behind it; I spotted them through their online programme for the last Kassel Documenta. I've got together with these people. I bring all my material into the office, naturally all my curiosity and experience and the MediaCube people do the technical side, the administrative side and of course the financial side. They have managed to get the Hannover Expo as sponsors; Heimat.net will have its official premiere there.
SPEZIAL: Can a project like that be attractively presented visually?
REITZ: I have great faith that it can be. Of course, it can't have the stark, structured appearance of a filing system in an office or a normal computer database, it has to be enticing. That's why we have chosen three very German, very Heimat-like trees for our graphic image: fir, lime and oak. The fir represents the Christmas tree as well as the subject themes of home and family, the lime represents the village square and thus the precise, small neighbourhood, the community, and the oak of course is the higher principles: law, order, state. Everyone who contributes to Heimat.net, a letter, a picture, a report, is growing another branch on the appropriate tree. Whoever just visits the site will be able to see how the trees are growing.
SPEZIAL: Can you click on this Heimat.net already?
REITZ: The trees haven't been planted yet. But there is the website of course, its address is www.heimat.net and you can see how things are progressing there.
SPEZIAL: If you are continuing your Heimat narrative with a third part, that won't be an internet project then, will it? It'll be in the tried and trusted form - a film cycle for television?
REITZ: It looks like that at the moment. There are seven scripts for seven conventional films, so 100 to 120 minutes long. However, I could imagine inserting the material into a larger number of shorter episodes. We will discuss that when we have decided how and with whom the whole thing will be produced.
SPEZIAL: How did you find your co-author, the East Berliner Thomas Brussig?
REITZ: A few years ago I was teaching at the Babelsberg Film School and he was my student there. That was already famous for his novel Helden wie wir [Heroes Like Us], I didn't know at the time. He loved Die Zweite Heimat and was immediately prepared to sit down and co-write the new Hunsrück stories.
SPEZIAL: Will this new cycle be called Heimat 3 or Heimat 2000?
REITZ: An earlier announcement said it would be Heimat 2000, but I've come to dislike that title. It's still too near and after the big New Year's Eve events, normality will catch up with us again. After the mad rush, peace and quiet will return.
SPEZIAL: But the New Year's Eve events will be where this new Heimat chronicle finishes?
REITZ: The time-span is from the Wende, so from autumn 1989 to the turn of the century. The strange thing is, I only really became aware of the Wende myself much later, because at the end of 1989 I was in the middle of shooting for Die Zweite Heimat, so in the 60s and to a certain extent blind to the present. The most important thing when the wall came down was, now I could finally shoot certain scenes, whose production I had put off because I didn't know what to do about them - they were set on the motorway between Berlin and Munich. But when I was travelling half-way around the world in 1994, to the premieres of Die Zweite Heimat in various different countries, I was constantly being asked, How do people in Germany feel now that the wall has come down? And only then did I start to ask myself that question.
SPEZIAL: Isn't it erroneous for a chronicle of the reunification century to have as its central stage the remote Hunsrück, on the edge of the new as well as the old Federal Republic?
REITZ: Oh even the Hunsrück people aren't as immobile as they might think. When I was driving through the GDR for the first time after the wall came down, I met a whole bus full of Hunsrück people at a motorway service station, they were on their way to St Petersburg. An example: the first Wende story that I want to tell in the film is about the first two Ossis who arrived in the Hunsrück at the end of 1989, three construction workers who wanted to earn their first couple of west-marks there. There was no doubt about their right to a job, but they had no income tax cards or anything and as such, they had a strangely uneven status, and as a consequence the locals looked on them warily, as if they were illegal workers.
All of these circumstances were quickly forgotten, which makes them narratively attractive and not just for comic material. Just imagine three Ossis in a West German construction market for the first time - you could laugh yourself stupid about that today, and not only in the East where by now there are more construction markets than here. Or think of the summer of 1990, of the triumph when Germany won the football world cup. This intense moment of the Germans' sense of belonging is going to be conjured up by one of the Heimat episodes, because this feeling has long since dissipated.
SPEZIAL: All this sounds rather lightweight. The Hunsrück as centre of the universe is not something you can claim any more.
REITZ: You don't know Hahn, the American Air Force base, which probably held the largest stock of nuclear weapons in western Europe. For decades Hahn was an enormous, fiercely guarded piece of terra incognita right in the middle of their home, which you had to make long diversions to get around and a peculiar kind of biotope because of course, the land was never farmed. You have to speak of the Americans as being an enormous social and industrial factor in the area because it's never been said before. Thousands of Hunsrück people had civilian jobs there, and thousands of houses were built, entire communities, in the villages. Americanisms have entered the regional dialect and there were Americans who could speak the Hunsrück tongue as well as any farmer. And then, one day, they all disappeared.
SPEZIAL: That sounds like a melancholy story of depression. And then?
REITZ: Then it turned out that the Hunsrück people were right to think of their home as the centre of the universe. The collapse of world-wide political fronts is in the detail because in these communities, where only American had been spoken for years, you could now hear mainly Russian. The so-called Russian Germans, who were invited back to their homeland by the Kohl administration have since come in their droves, mainly from Kirgisia and Kazakhstan, looking for somewhere to live. Inevitably, the quarters around the air base which had been vacated by the Americans were available to them. This replacement has taken place step by step and in the meantime apparently around 100,000 of these ethnic Germans from the former Soviet Union live in the Hunsrück.
SPEZIAL: So is it the old homeland for them? Or their new homeland?
REITZ: Of course, only the older ones speak German, often only rudimentary and in dialects that we no longer know, and often only one parent is German so the language in the family is Russian. But I am certain that they regard Germany as their home and not Kazakhstan because they have such a high, internalised and complete, almost religious concept of German-ness, which one can't imagine in this country any more. Prussian. Williamine. Of course, most of them belong to very rigid, and as such, very conservative religious communities.
SPEZIAL: Is there a bomb waiting to explode in the exchanges between old and new Hunsrückers?
REITZ: Some groups, the Mennonites, for example, keep themselves very closed off. But the Hunsrück person who has survived many invasions and mass migrations is naturally very curious and sociable, they want to speak to strangers.
These latest migrations are the stories of the decades that I want to portray. It turns out that you don't need to move out into the world to experience history; history catches up with you, even in the furthest corner of the Hunsrück. And so you see, I'm no longer merely concerned with the autobiographical, but with stories that contain life truths.