Home is not a place (Interview with Edgar Reitz)

In the course of the 20th Century, home has dissolved into a mobile non-place and lost its importance in identity formation, says Edgar Reitz. With his two "Heimat" series the German filmmaker has been the chronicler of this development. Now he is completing a unique film and television trilogy with the third series of films.

For over 20 years, Edgar Reitz (born 1932) has worked continously on the "Heimat" films. Both the first, "Heimat" from 1984, and the successor "Die zweite Heimat" from 1994, have received international acclaim. The films have been screened on television and cinema the world over and won prizes. After completing the second series Reitz started working on the screenplays for the third, but that turned into a slow and tiresome process, with many collisions with the commercialization of the television production departments. Reitz seemed tired and fed up with these conflicts as he related them during our conversation in the offices of his film production company in Munich.

"The first "Heimat" was a great success in Germany, but that was a long time ago, in 1984. Then there were only three TV channels. When "Die zweite Heimat" was screened, we had over 20 channels, and they still hoped for the same ratings. With the first "Heimat" we had 15-18 Million viewers each evening. Not even the football World Cup accomplishes such ratings today! With "Die zweite Heimat" we had 2-2,5 Million viewers, and that was not enough for the TV people. It was a great export success, but that is no argument for German television. They say: "We don't care about export, we want to see high ratings in Germany". For me, this is a completely new situation. Until now I have only cared about qualitative criteria, not the naked ratings. I don't know how to adjust my work to take this into consideration. As difficult as this, then, is it now to do something in this country if you have artistic ambitions. A lot is being produced in Germany, a lot of commercial entertainment, but the ones who try to add an artistic dimension, or to speak the international language of film art, cannot succeed. People in the director's chairs who previously were our friends, have changed a lot. Few of them have maintained their character, few are still fighting for something", Reitz said.

The public service broadcaster ARD had the scripts for two years before they were finally accepted. Reitz had to make ten versions of the script for one of the films. Originally the director wanted to produce a series of eleven films, but after long negotiations the number was cut to six. In the fall of 1999, Reitz was hoping to present the films with the working title "Heimat 2000" to the audience in 2002.

Farewell to politics and the nation
The German word "Heimat" is not easily translated - "home" is not sufficient - and contains several layers of meaning. Besides the physical place a person comes from, it also describes the emotional aspect of belonging and of identity, and a sense of being connected to traditions. The changes to the many layers of the "Heimat" experience has been Reitz' dominating theme in the 24 films of the first two series. With the films of the forthcoming third series, a chronicle spanning almost the whole of the history of the 20th Century is created.

The first series of 11 films filtered German history, centered on the period of 1919-1950, through the changes of a small village in the provincial region Hunsrück on the Rhine in the west of Germany. The 13 films of "Die zweite Heimat" begins in 1960, as the protagonist Hermann Simon breaks away from the stranglehold of the village and travels to Munich to study music and build his own, independent life. In the last scene of film number 13, he returns to the village for the first time in ten years. The greatest part of the new series will take place in Hunsrück, again focusing on the main characters Hermann Simon and Clarissa Lichtblau. But "Heimat 2000" will not be as concentrated on one place as the other films. One part is played out in the German Democratic Republic shortly before the German unification in 1990, while another is set in Munich.

The scene of the start of "Heimat 2000" is Berlin. The date is November 9, 1989, and the Wall is opened. As the ten year anniversary of the fall of the Wall was celebrated in the autumn of 1999, the German media and the government were intensely occupied with the memory of the revolutionary months of East Germany. Many opinion polls and research projects about the status of the relationship between East and West Germans were published. But for Edgar Reitz, all of this was unimportant, definitely a thing of the past.

"The fall of the Berlin Wall, what it means for East and West, the end of socialism in East Germany, none of these questions interest people today. Now we are all more concerned about our individual happiness than of society and politics. This is the end of politics. Our current government consists of career seekers, who are just as interested in the good life as everyone else. When you become German chancellor today, the goal is to get your own private pilot and go to great parties, to be at the top of the hierarchy of the good life. It is a stage, a theatre. Because of this politics is not interesting any more, and I don't have this interest either. In the 1960s I had, they were years of political idealism, where politics had priority in all areas of life. Not even a small part remains of this. That also has great consequences for my stories. They become much more private. Today, what happened before, what kind of questions the past poses to us, is not relevant. History has become uninteresting. We are all as if we had fallen from the skies, without past. We only see what happens today, and when we look into the future it is maximum two years. Longer perspectives do not exist. The greatest perspective is four years, an election period. I don't say this without satirical background, and of course it is a frightening development. But I notice in myself that I am saying farewell to politics. That is the way it is, you are a child of your own time."

"So the fall of the Wall also meant the end of politics?"

"Most of all it meant the end of Germany. After this there is no German question any more. The idea of the nation does not exist, it is the definitive end of the nation. Except for a couple of idiotic neonazis, there is no one who will now say "I put my hope in the nation, in that my life will be better here than in another country". It cannot. Especially in German history - but also in France - there was a national expectation of happiness, and now I am not talking about the big political perspectives, but about the individual. When you came of a certain age you discovered that "there is not only this town, there is a country and a cultural area that I belong to. I see that within these borders there are things happening that concern me, and my future depends on what happens there". These are old ideas. After the fall of the Wall there was a short period of time, maybe a couple of years, when the East Germans had to adjust to the feeling of belonging to a larger national entity. Then they still hoped their lives would improve because of this. Now everyone knows that the future is not being shaped by politics, or inside national boundaries."

"This must have positive sides as well, especially for Germany?"

"Yes. I think it is a good development, because it can be a chance for Europe, even if there is no European nation. Therefore Europe will be open at the borders, and can never be closed off as an entity. That can help bring a global feeling. Society stands at the threshold of a really global culture, but it is still very little developed. First the frame is created, then the content of it must slowly grow. Not all of us will experience this, but I think the fall of the Wall is a symbol of the end of an old world view."

One world, one hotel
"At the beginning of the new century globalization is not only present as a series of economic and political processes. It also has its ideology, which is most concisely expressed in commercials on the global TV channels CNN and BBC World. One example is the hotel chain Intercontinental, which concluded its films with the slogan "Essentially we're all the same - one world, one hotel". Is this the best expression of what a "Heimat" is today?"

"It will never be as simple as that, but one should not underestimate how these commercial things are forming our consciousness. When we travel and everywhere meet the same standards, in hotels, airports, restaurants - this is very important. First a feeling of security is established in everyone. Then there is the tendency of mergers of big companies in all sectors. Soon it will not be important in what country you buy a product. Microsoft is also the beginning of a world culture, but it is of course a very primitive start. In the past the world was much richer; the world of nations and of small cultures was much richer than the world of the big companies. And more beautiful. When we today want to go to an attractive place, we travel to where the small cultures existed. If it is to Venice or to see the Alhambra, or for example the wonderful South German city Regensburg. Those are great cities, and such things will not be created by Microsoft."

"While you have been occupied with your long-lasting "Heimat" project, the issues you bring up - such as traditional identity under pressure - have become the most important conflicts on the national and international agendas. During the 1990s ethnic conflicts have been used as a pretext to start several bloody wars. This is also Europe after the fall of the Wall?"

"This is one of the great contradictions. All the wars of the last 50 years have been ethnic wars. That is a symptom of a transition. The development from a regional to a global culture is asynchronous. In some parts of the world it goes fast, other parts are far behind. The development towards globalization is an incredibly strong confrontation with all traditions (such as religion), that are all losing their importance. Hence people of course also become uncertain and feel lost in the world. They are clinging to their traditions and defending them unto death. In spite of this, we all know that they will lose. All traditionalistic cultures will go under. It is, for example, a terrible drama that islam tries to go against the current developments. Islam will lose this war, as idea and as cultural background. The Christian churches have always adjusted, but in this way also lost their character. Catholicism, for example, has as a modernized religion become completely empty. People leave the church, and when the Pope loses his power the church will also dissolve. I say this as an observer, but also I feel great pain by the loss of "Heimat" in this sense. For "Heimat" is not only a place, but also tradition."

Time has also caught up with Reitz in another sense. With "Heimat" he treated a period that was as much as 60-80 years back in time. With "Die zweite Heimat" the distance was reduced to 20-30 years. The new series will play out in our times - the 1990s.

"Now it is a film about the world today. That makes it intellectually more difficult."

Television or film?
Most of what is produced for television is for immediate consumption and will be forgotten just as fast. The "Heimat" series are the closest we get to classical, canonical works for television. But Reitz and his films also have an ambivalent relationship to the television medium. Both the earlier series have been financed by TV channels, and television is the most important distribution medium. The films are generally only shown in cinemas as parts of special "Heimat" happenings, or in cinematheques. But at the same time, the "Heimat" films also break the typical genre rules for TV series. The "episodes" are unusually long, up to two hours each, and Reitz does not follow the soap opera structure that is forced on almost all TV productions today.

"I have never understood my films as series. They are like novels with many chapters. "Die zweite Heimat" is ONE film, and consists of 13 chapters. Their lenght varies, and is not part of a TV format. Also with the new film, it is like this. The best way is to see the films in one piece, if possible. Such marathon screenings are always a great experience. When, for example, you see "Die zweite Heimat" over four days, eight hours a day, the audience is changed afterwards. In this way my films are not series, and they do not have anything to do with soap operas. But with television people you always have to find a compromise formula. They say it is a series, I say it is ONE film, and then we have to find a form so that both they and I can be right. And I think it is possible. You can structure the chapters so that a couple of the series criteria are used. But I am very careful in doing this, because I don't want it to be possible to divide the chapters in more parts afterwards. It has to remain a unity."

One compromise that seems to be made, is that all the parts of the new film will have the same length, 90 minutes, to fit into the programming of the TV channel. But Reitz does not compromise in his view on the hierarchy between the cinema film and television.

"The cinema is the cultural "Heimat", as it were. This art was created in the cinema, and only the cinema sets the standard internationally. Only there you know what aesthetical categories exist, and everyone who loves this craft, works with cinema in mind. Television is only a distribution machine, and that which only is made for television, talkshows and such things, have nothing to do with art. Television is not an art medium - a distribution form at best, but not the optimal one. Of course a film on the big screen with good sound quality and the room full av people, is the real product. The tradition of cinema is my roots, that is where I come from and where I work. Therefore all my films are first screened in the cinema."

Concentrating in the darkness of the cinema
The last decade the cinema has staged a great comeback in Europe. Big money is yet again being invested in the movie business. New multiplex cinemas are being built everywhere. In Germany this is very visible in the old film metropolis Berlin, where several such centres are important in pulling people to the rebuilt Potsdamer Platz area. Reitz' old colleague Wim Wenders has merged his production company Road Movies with the stock exchange listed company Das Werk. It is again possible to earn money on the cinema in Europe, and this does not surprise Edgar Reitz.

"The cinema will never die. This has nothing to do with technology. Cinema and the film are children of technology, but they meet another demand. The most important with cinema is that we experience something in a room full of people, and that we leave the private sphere. I think the multiplex cinemas are doing something right when they have restaurants etc in the same buildings. The concept of this mix is right, that there also are big foyers where you can sit down together and talk about the film or other things. We more and more need a contrast to the private atmosphere, because in our homes we are not really private anymore. When I come home I first look at the fax machine, then I listed to the telephone answering machine, then I check my email, and the mobile phone. Then maybe I surf the net. At home something is watching over me, the modern communication systems have made our homes into places of communicating with the world. The real places for contemplation, concentration, silence, are now outside. In the cinema, when the lights are out and it becomes dark, then we return to mother's womb, to our "Heimat".

"So this experience is more important than the actual films you see?"

"Of course the films also are important. Films that only are made to stimulate consumption, destroy this atmosphere. A friend of mine who owns more multiplex cinemas, has told me that he doesn't live off the films, he lives from popcorn! Partly the American film companies demand more than 100 percent of the ticket earnings from the most popular films. Still he earns money, because he can sell so much popcorn. Popcorn has a profit margin of over 2000 percent. Popcorn consists of profit and air, they say in the business."

5000 teachers
The style of the great film directors is often recognizable through special narrative techniques or visual solutions that become their signature. With Reitz it is different. His style only becomes visible when one looks at the "Heimat" films as a unified work: It consists of using a variety of the different techniques and narrative forms that have been developed by the great filmmakers during the first 100 years of film. Reitz is best compared to a versatile, experienced novelist.

"I admit that I am very oriented towards litterature. In my opinion, language is the elementary human expression. Everything we do as artists has a connection to language. For me, film is another kind of language. When I tell a story, I call it a filmic novel because I use the structural principles of the novel, but I speak with the language of film, not of literature. I believe it functions well."

"How does this way of telling change from the first, via the second to the third "Heimat"?"

"It will change considerably, but that is not a question of artistic strategy. We have changed, I have changed, the times have changed. We have another feeling of time. Our way of seeing has become faster. We are daily trained by an incredible amount of audiovisual events. Not only the many TV programmes, but also advertising in shops, on the street, the PC with its games, leads to a much faster speed of reaction. Our nerve system reacts in another way. We can in a much more sophisticated way understand several things simultaneously, we have been trained in following more stories at the same time. That is of course a fantastic chance for me, because I can tell much more than before. I can cut between parallel stories and move the camera faster. That is no longer experienced as disturbing. In my earlier films I have done many experiments with fast editing and collages, and in the 1970s and 80s people didn't accept that. The audience became hysterical. Today this is an everyday thing, and functions also among the older generation."

"The film business is also on the edge of a digital revolution. That can be noticed already on the screening technology in the cinema, and directors such as Lars von Trier have used digital video in their productions. Wim Wenders made "Buena Vista Social Club" with digital equipment, and says that he from now on only will work digitally."

"He says that, but he doesn't mean it! The new "Heimat" film will be made on 35 mm film. That is still the best technique, and it is compatible with all other systems. Video systems are different, and they change. One day we will no longer work with photographic film, but that is far ahead. The equipment for 35 mm film is still lighter, smaller and gives a better result than for example high definition video. When you will work with high resolution systems, you arrive with a truckload of equipment. I can bring my 35 mm camera in the car. And when I work with the film camera I have 5000 teachers, the best filmmakers from 100 years of film history have shown me how it should be done. Should I have worked with video, I would have been a pioneer, and been working with untested methods. But for certain purposes, in the domain of documentary and in feature films when it is motivated by the story, video can be used with excellent results. For example have I for years used a digital video camera to make an audiovisual diary, only for myself. It is like before, when writers wrote diaries or letters, that is the way I use video. It is a wonderful, private way of expression."

"Would you publish the diaries?"

"No. I think it is great to have something in the drawer. Earlier you could not do that as a filmmaker. All writers have something in the drawer, but not filmmakers. A lot of money is involved in everything they do, and it must be published immediately. Maybe later, when one is dead, or someone makes a dissertation - but for the moment it is only for me and my friends."

Online, then offline again
During the research for "Heimat 2000", Edgar Reitz has, as so many others, discovered and explored the Internet. That has led to the construction of the website www.heimat.net, and a complete digitalization of all the material from the first two "Heimat" series. When "Heimat 2000" opens, the website will be relaunched, and then it will be possible to move about on your own in the "Heimat" universe. And follow links to other websites.

"The film will be like a distribution system that one can use to find another way out on the net than the usual. This is inspired by all the different kinds of themes and issues that occur in the stories. If you are interested in the history of photography, or the car, or fashion, or national socialism, or whatever - this website will supply the necessary paths to such information."

Reitz outlines ambitions for an even broader concept, among other things a computer game where the Hunsrück region is digitalized and you can click your way through biographies of the series' different characters. This work will proceed in parallel with the production of the film, but in the meantime Reitz himself has become deeply disappointed with the Net's development.

"Already from the beginning I tried to experience the Net, and I was one of the first to get a connection. Then I saw with what an enthusiasm many people, especially in the USA, started. In the beginning it was indeed very free, there were no rules and people were searching. That has disappeared. The Internet is full of advertising, and demands very much time. When you start to surf, you need hours and whole nights, and afterwards you have a bad feeling because you have seen so much shit. It is worse than a really bad film. It is very rare that you notice a small human touch, it is mostly very superficial and commercial. I know there is a kind of obsession this, to turn on the PC and the browser, you think that something is waiting for you. There is an undefined hope, a longing, and this can be like an addiction, as to alcohol or drugs. But drugs are an illusion, and the Internet has also become like an illusion. I have become very skeptical, because even before it was well developed technologically, it was commercialized. Then it is no fun anymore. I just know that when I read a book I will be informed in a much better way, and then I am in a better position to control my own time. It is a more perfect form of information, and the same is true for films or exhibitions. It is a more intensive and free form."

The memory of "Heimat"
With "Heimat 2000" Edgar Reitz, through the main characters Hermann and Clarissa, is returning to Hunsrück, where he was born and grew up. Hunsrück has been the starting point for Reitz' 20 years long exploration of the changed meaning of home through the century. During these 20 years his own home, the village and the region, have also changed radically.

"When I come to Hunsrück, where we have been working on the screenplays, I see that they have the same standard as everywhere else. A big industrial area has been built, with shopping malls where absolutely everything you can think about can be bought. The people who live there, and who 20 years ago still were farmers who never left the village; now they eat exotic fruits every day and demand a standard only the rich could allow themselves before. They want strawberries for Christmas and would never have thought of the idea of producing their own potatoes. In the supermarket they are cheaper and better, and they come from Chile and South Africa, or somewhere else".

""Heimat" in this sense doesn't exist anymore. It is no longer a very specific region, with a very specific smell where you with closed eyes know where you are. It is only a memory of something that has been, and this memory you can bring with you, it is no longer connected to a place. You can travel 1000 kilometers and bring that memory with you. "Heimat" has become mobile.

Reitz was interviewed in Munich in November 1999. The interview was published in the Norwegian language in the journal Samtiden, no. 2-3 2000. A shorter version was printed in the weekly newspapers Morgenbladet (Oslo) and Weekendavisen (Copenhagen) in December 1999.

Copyright © Olav Anders Øvrebø.