In Praise of Edgar Reitz’s Heimat

Wyndham Wallace profiles a 1980s German TV epic…

‘History is written by the victors’, Winston Churchill once said, and as someone living in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s I grew up with an interpretation that deemed the Germans humourless warmongers whose crimes should never be forgotten. In the playground, the word ‘Nazi’ was virtually interchangeable with ‘German’.

The ‘propaganda’ of the war-associated films and comic books I consumed as a child was so deeply ingrained that even when my father’s job took him to the north of the country I remained suspicious of perfectly pleasant locals. But such attitudes are far from uncommon: even now English crowds chant ‘Two World Wars and one World Cup’ at football matches against German teams. The most recent of these triumphs might have been 1966, but it seems that some of my compatriots are in little hurry to put the past behind them.

All the same (and perhaps, in hindsight, it was precisely because of such attitudes), I moved to Berlin six years ago, possibly under the illusion that Berlin is a state of mind rather than the capital of Germany. I wandered its streets for hours at a time, eyes drawn to the pockmarked façades of houses that still bore the scars of war, head whirling at the photos of bombed-out devastation exhibited within the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche, tear ducts threatening to leak within the Checkpoint Charlie Museum.

I’d never looked at the city from this angle before. I reveled in its multiculturalism, its acceptance of Bohemian lifestyles and its willingness to accept its past. I devoured books like Christopher Hilton’s The Wall: The People’s Story, or Ian McEwan’s The Innocent, much of it set in Adalbertstraße close to my apartment. I began to think of Berlin as a living organism, complex and contradictory, the sum of all of its inhabitants past, present and future, and slowly I realised that, as the 2001 film says, ‘Berlin is in Germany’. Like every race, the Germans are not a nation so much as a collection of people living within one country’s borders, their behaviour and opinions varied. My view of its citizens had been contaminated by a one-sided and outdated version of events long since past.

Edgar Reitz’s epic 1984 TV series Heimat is the perfect antidote for those suffering a similar affliction, sixty-three years of German history unfolding over almost 1000 minutes in the fictional village of Schabback in the Hunsrück region near the Rhine. Telling the story of the Simon family, it offers an understated depiction of their struggles and victories as, first and foremost, human beings. It’s a compulsive and sympathetically tender account of much of the twentieth Century from the perspective of a German filmmaker seeking to free history from moral judgement and melodrama. The war years are given no greater weight than those that came before or after.

Beginning at the end of the First World War and ending in 1982, it contextualises the country’s social mores, technological advances, political upheavals and human tragedies amidst the minutiae of everyday life, from berry-picking to bomb defusals, from gentrification to prostitution, from pesticides to genocide. It’s fiction, of course, and rural life as envisioned by Reitz may arguably at times be somewhat romanticised, but given the manner that (for instance) British and American films have ‘tweaked’ understanding of the country’s history, this hardly stands up as criticism. Heimat is, you could say, history written by the losers. For those not familiar with such a thing, it’s a revelation.

Heimat is also ideal ‘slow television’, its pace completely at odds with contemporary mainstream styles. Instead of the breakneck speed with which today’s TV shows are edited, Reitz credits his audience with lengthy attention spans, teasing stories out of banality, lingering on shots of landscapes and interiors, refusing to tie up loose ends, shifting gently from black and white to colour throughout. It leaves room to breathe yet remains constantly engaging, its themes resonating across generations and borders.

Surprisingly, despite the fact that Heimat is considered internationally to be one of the finest television programmes ever made, it remains something of a secret within its own country. Perhaps its brushstrokes are too broad for those with an intimate knowledge of Germany, or maybe its nostalgia is too sentimental for those with a deeper understanding of the land’s culture. But given that Heimat takes its name, at least in part, from a form of post-war cinema that leaned heavily on provincial life and nature this is surely forgivable.

Churchill may have had a point (though ironically he may not have been the first to say it), but that’s all the more reason to seek out new perspectives, and those of us who have adopted this country as our home can find an admirable one in Heimat.

The follow up films Heimat 2 and Heimat 3 are now also available. You can read an interview with Reitz about Heimat 3 in The Guardian here. A longer 1991 interview with Reitz for Sight & Sound has been archived here.