| The six
films of the entire series of Heimat 3: Chronik einer Zeitenwende
(2004) - for director Edgar Reitz claims there will, sadly, be no more -
begin the night the Wall comes down. They finish – openly, how else? – the
morning after New Year’s Eve celebrations for the millennium. And so the
vision of an obsessed director concludes: eighty years of the history of
Europe’s most turbulent twentieth century nation, twenty-five-odd years
of his own art and life, fifty-odd hours of cinema. Hollywood blockbuster
proportions, or closer to home, three complete Ring cycles. Ahead
of questions about quality, the distinctiveness of that achievement needs
to be acknowledged – the Heimat trilogy is unlikely to be approached
After absorbing the thrill of returning to familiar, long absent friends in Episode 1, the viewer is quickly introduced to significant new characters as well. Matching the earlier series, some of these appear in a single film. Notable among these is the Bosnian boy of Episode 5, whose fate is a grim comment on the primacy up until the millennium of jus sanguinis, of German identity determined by bloodlines. His is one of two deaths in the heart of Lorelei territory, and foundering on contemporary rocks results from parochialism and greed, ‘made in Germany’. Far beyond Western triumphalism, greed is a leitmotif of Heimat 3, and it becomes the base for elaborate allusions to Wagner’s Ring – in script, original score, and images (above all the rainbow above the bridge to Ernst’s/Alberich’s lair as the Rhine floods). When to that already complex mix of contemporary society and Germanic myths are added a return to German Romanticism (almost taking up Hans-Jurgen Syberberg’s project of a quarter-century earlier), and multiple allusions to film history, the layered quality of the series becomes clear.
At the outset of Heimat 2 (1992), Hermann (Henry Arnold) swore that music would be his sole love and his spiritual home (Heimat). Music, ‘the most German art’ in Nazi propaganda, permeates Heimat 3, too, but as with the cinema references, Germany is tackled as part of Europe. Wenders’ global road movies at the acoustic level – with U2 and others prominent – are paralleled here with classical music. And so Hermann conducts the ‘Rhenish’ Symphony in Amsterdam, and the ‘Prague’ in Vienna – German music, too, returns to the world fold. Hermann is invited to compose a Reunification Symphony, and we expect a project comparable to the cornerstone of Kieslowski’s Three Colours: Blue (1993). But this symphony never materialises, as one of a number of gaps or contrivances in the script (or else as an all too oblique comment on reunification not reaching completion in the historical script). Clarissa (Salomé Kammer), whose vocal range is reminiscent of Cathy Berberian, is swept up by crossover music. And so the German musical tradition is challenged by globalism, with world music mirroring the whole dilemma of clinging to a concept of Heimat, while trying to allow it historical flux. But the dilemma shows in Reitz’ choices too, with the almost obligatory art-film-aura presence in Episode 3 of Arvo Pärt, and Ives’ Unanswered Question. At first the latter seems to be a Run Lola Run (1998) moment, but then it continues over a soliloquy seeking answers to ‘what’s wrong with us?’, far closer to the same music and similar script in Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998). If indeed music had been Hermann’s Heimat in the ‘60s, then Heimat 3 highlights the difficulty of locating that Heimat within Germany’s Europeanisation and globalisation of the ‘90s.
The cinematography is often breathtaking. Not just the shots of sunsets or fireworks over the Rhine, but above all images like the low angle shot (seemingly evoking The Seventh Seal ) of the chain of protesters, silhouetted on top of a hill, reenacting the ‘Lichterketten’ which insisted on tolerance in the early stages of reunification. Reitz steers clear however of neo-Nazis, the Turkish-German community, Westerners going East rather than vice versa, those totally disaffected after reunification, or much at all from the fringe – Hermann and Clarissa’s lifestyle is much too well-heeled for that. Altogether, the German identity under scrutiny here is barely still history from below, the great achievement of Heimat 1 (1984). Social anchoring, which had been essential for Heimat 2 to sustain its extended dissection of the ‘60s, is loosened here, and that in turn strengthens the reliance on melodrama in the depiction of Hermann and Clarissa.
The allusions to other films both consolidate earlier German connections and open up European ones. They go beyond the referential – it is impossible to watch the statue of Lenin careering through the countryside, or Gunnar clearing out a jar of Eastern-brand-name peas in his former home, without mental comparison with Goodbye Lenin! (2003). Gunnar’s marriage is the first where unification at the national level seems to signal the end of marriages unified to that point, leading almost too schematically to the union of the new man from Munich and Gunnar’s former wife, from Dresden. When Gunnar is reunited with his children much later, they fail to recognise his parody of Honecker, and that, he says with some regret, really shows the end of the former East Germany. It is the daughters who seem to hold the key to the future, Gunnar’s older daughter who warms to his bumbling clownishness, and Hermann’s, who becomes astute and grounded, although without security.
At the very end of the series, Hermann’s daughter looks out, frightened and tearful, at the new millennium. She had spent New Year’s Eve not with her family, but with student friends, in desolate scenes by the Rhine. The friend dying of AIDS prophesises a new freedom in a gender sense, man becoming woman and woman, man. This seems to be an elaborate parallel to the final sequences of Alexander Kluge’s Die Patriotin (1979), with Gaby Teichert and her colleagues worrying away at Schiller’s Ode to Joy ("All men shall become brothers"), New Year fireworks illuminating Cologne Cathedral, and finally her calm gaze out through her window. Is this Reitz’ verdict on the quest by Kluge’s history teacher for a positive version of German history, now located in an era when the rest of the world is far more prepared to contemplate such a possibility? Is it the sum of those eighty years spanned by the three Heimat series, viewed in retrospect, rather than apprehension at the future; or maybe a Janus-gaze embracing both? The parallel film strand near the end of Heimat 3 is provided by Gunnar behind bars, having been unable to cope with freedom/license in the West; seemingly Reitz’ attempt to connect his German-German theme with the larger East-West theme of Three Colours: White (1994).
So what is left, and what is left to do, at the end of the German century? Hermann’s brother Ernst continues the earlier Heimat motif of art treasures, above all art deemed decadent during the Nazi era. He hordes his unique collection in a vault system, and despairs when parochial politics force his hand in pursuing a French offer to curate them. Ultimately they are lost altogether, as a local earth tremor causes them to be flooded – like at the end of Götterdämmerung. This seems to be Reitz’ ultimate elegiac statement, and it also contributes to the state of mind of Hermann’s daughter, who clearly would have been a worthy curator. Behind the lost German art treasures – lost first at home, in being deemed decadent, and then abroad in the aftermath of World War II displacement – one suspects this self-reflexive director is further lamenting the fate of so much film of the silent era, not confined to Germany. The notion of German originals having fallen into Russian hands dramatically parallels the tale of the Bosnian boy, wrongly suspected of being Ernst’s biological son, and the jus sanguinis issue.
Heimat 1 was accused in some quarters of bypassing key aspects of German history (notably the Holocaust); in Heimat 2, contemporary music and film were counterpointed against the heady politics of the ‘60s. Heimat 3, for all its filtering of history and politics postdating the fall of the Wall, is studded with more references to art, film and music than its even more monumental predecessors. Ultimately Reitz’ summation of the twentieth century seems to be a salvaging of the nineteenth. That alone is no mean achievement, and the three Heimat series must constitute one of the major contributions to film to date. But Heimat 3 in a sense returns to what the New German Cinema was not historically in a position to reclaim. With Heimat 1, Reitz claimed to be reappropriating German history (concretely, from its representation in the US series Holocaust ). Via Heimat 2, his final epic stakes claim to German art as Germany’s abiding historical heritage. The nation of poets and thinkers, whose remoteness from politics was viewed as a primary facilitator of Nazism, has become an ideal nation of artists, filmmakers and musicians, and its welcome back to the world stage is not without historical irony. The postwar stability of the old/new Federal Republic of course makes possible both finding Heimat in art, and gaining global acceptance. The fact that the Reunification Symphony evaporates might be a blow for contemporary music. It most certainly is a pessimistic historical gloss, and it is that which pitches us back to nineteenth century art.
© Roger Hillman and Rouge 2005. Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.