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There's some debate amongst film buffs as to whether the character of Hermann Simon is meant to be some sort of surrogate for the director Edgar Reitz. While you're making your mind up on that one, here's a picture of the teenage Hermann (Jorg Richter) having three-in-a-bed sex with Hunsruck hotties Klarchen (Gudrun Landgrebe) and Lotti (Gabriele Blum), from the first 'Heimat'. Originally posted on The Unpleasant Lair Of Spank The Monkey 12/05/2005.

All three Heimats are now available on DVD for your viewing pleasure. Edgar Reitz returned to Schabbach again in 2006 for Heimat-Fragmente: Die Frauen, a self-confessed 'footnotes project' assembled from previously deleted scenes from all three films. This hasn't been seen in the UK yet, as far as I know, though a DVD is available (no English subtitles, unfortunately).

On the weekend that Heimat 3 opened in London, the UK was in the middle of its 50th anniversary celebrations for VE Day. While I was sitting in the Renoir cinema in Bloomsbury, Doctor Who actor Christopher Eccleston was in Trafalgar Square paying tribute to those courageous servicemen and women of World War 2: the ones who saw the struggle out to the end of the conflict, rather than bottling out after one year because they felt a bit tired. Inevitably, those celebrations were entirely from the British point of view: why would they be any other way? As a Brit, I've been pretty much programmed since birth to believe that we went to war in 1939 because 'the Germans went a bit evil some time in the thirties'.

Twenty years ago, British audiences were treated to what could be the best ever depiction of the pre-war German psyche - Edgar Reitz's epic Heimat, an eleven episode TV series ambitious enough to end up being shown in cinemas all over the world. It's nothing less than a history of Germany in the 20th century, seen through the prism of a typical family in the Hunsruck town of Schabbach. The Simons aren't particularly important: they don't have any bearing on world events, or anything like that. But we see how the changes in German society affect them. In the aftermath of the First World War, we listen to them grumbling around newly-erected war memorials as they complain about the rough deal they've had. As things start to pick up under Hitler, they gleefully relish the change in their fortunes, with only old Kath Simon (Gertrud Bredel) - the moral centre of the story - warning them that when everything's paid for on tick, sooner or later the bill has to be settled. To someone brought up on a diet of British pre-war dramas, this viewpoint is something of a revelation.

Rewatching Heimat on DVD recently, I was wondering if part of my affection for the series stems from the unusual circumstances in which I first saw it - projected on a huge cinema screen, its 16 hours spread over four consecutive evenings. And I suspect that to some degree, that's true. But I've seen other TV series in similar situations since then, and Heimat's visual ambition stands out a mile. Curiously, the one element that everyone always latches onto - it's filmed mainly in black and white, with individual shots or scenes in colour whenever there's a rise in emotional intensity - doesn't come off as well these days. But the framing, the camera movement, the sheer physical feel for the environment, all still captivate twenty years on. (There's a thesis to be written about the tipping point in the eighties when television drama suddenly started trying to be cinematic - Edge Of Darkness in Britain, Twin Peaks in the US, Heimat in Germany...)

At this extended length, with a narrative timeframe stretching from 1919 to 1982, Heimat is also a fabulous piece of epic storytelling. We watch characters as they're born, age and die, at a pace which gives their lives some sort of meaning. Its first episode uses a nifty trick that's been repeated in umpteen pilots ever since. It sets up a central character - Paul Simon (Michael Lesch), a Schabbacher just returned from the war - builds a story around him as he settles down with wife Maria (Marita Breuer), and then upends our expectations by having him walk out of town without warning. From then on, the rest of the series follows Maria as she struggles to raise her three sons single-handed: Anton and Ernst from her marriage to Paul, and Hermann from a short fling with her lover Otto (Jorg Hube).

Hermann's story was a strange anomaly within the series. It was the longest individual episode (two and a half hours), the one which abused the B&W/colour switch most dramatically (almost reversing the meaning of the colour scheme), and the one that concentrated most on a single character at the expense of the rest of the Simon family. The final caption at the end of Hermann's episode tells of how he ran away from his home town to pursue a career as a composer in various European capitals. Could we assume that Reitz made a similar journey in his early years? Suspicions of that nature were aroused further in 1993, when Reitz extended that single caption into a thirteen part, twenty-six hour sequel, Die Zweite Heimat, following Hermann and his art school pals through the sixties. I haven't had time to rewatch this second series because, frankly, life is short. But again, it's a hugely cinematic portrait of a country at a particular time. The focus on young arty types makes this a more urban experience than the first series, and its compressed timeframe means that it's less influenced by historical events, but Reitz's love of an epic yarn is still there in every frame.

Hermann (Henry Arnold) and Clarissa (Salome Kammer) in 'Heimat 3'. Copy to the 'Up The Arse Corner' competition in Viz. So to date, we've had 42 hours of story, following a single family's life in Germany up till 1982. That leaves another 18 years of the 20th century: a period during which Germany saw even more momentous changes. So it seems somewhat inevitable that Reitz would return to Schabbach one more time in Heimat 3. As I write, it's showing in a limited run in London, with a BBC screening and DVD release to follow later in 2005. In comparison to the huge demands made on audiences watching the first two series in cinemas, this one is a mere eleven hours spread over six feature-length episodes - the whole thing can be watched painlessly over a single weekend.

With a fascinating period of German history to cover, Heimat 3 (subtitled A Chronicle Of Endings And Beginnings) dives straight in at the deep end, with Hermann (Henry Arnold) on the streets of Berlin on November 9th 1989. As the news of the fall of the Wall spreads across the city, he runs to the nearest public TV screen for reports - and bumps straight into former lover Clarissa Lichtblau (Salome Kammer). He's not seen her since 1972: we've not seen her since the end of Die Zweite Heimat. Caught up in the whole atmosphere of new beginnings, they tumble almost immediately into bed and start making plans to resume their life together.

Both Hermann and Clarissa have become famous in their respective musical fields - he's doing a lot more conducting than composing these days, she's touring as a singer. While on tour a few years earlier, Clarissa found an old poet's house that she thought would work well as a fixer-upper: so she takes Hermann to see it, with a view to making it their new home. It's in the Hunsruck, and his old home town is just visible in the distance. Twenty years after his last visit, Hermann is back in Schabbach again. (At least that's his story, and it's certainly twenty years since his return to the town in the final scene of Die Zweite Heimat. But what about that 1982 funeral he attended in the final episode of Heimat? Honestly, it's a good job this isn't science fiction, or else the continuity geeks would be up in arms.)

One useful advantage of reunification is the sudden availability of cheap labour from East Germany, and Clarissa recruits a couple of builders from Leipzig to start work on the house - Udo (Tom Quaas) and Gunnar (Uwe Steimle). They pick up some assistants, notably the sensitive electrician Tillmann (Peter Schneider) and the bemulleted restoration expert Tobi (Heiko Senst). Between them all, they manage to get the place rebuilt in a mere seven months. Once the building team is disbanded, they won't be gathered together again until the last hours of the 20th century - but in the meantime, the story frequently looks in on them to see how they're coping with the new realities of the reunified country.

Meanwhile, the Simon family continues to loom large across the story. Hermann's brothers Anton (Matthias Kniesbeck) and Ernst (Michael Kausch) are still a major force within Schabbach. Anton's optical works has grown, and he's become a full-fledged patriarch of a dynasty - to the extent that family arguments are already starting about who'll inherit the firm from him when he goes, mainly involving the terrifyingly ambitious Hartmut (Christian Leonard). Ernst has more or less become a hermit, living on the outskirts of town, but keeping up the import/export business that has gradually led to his acquiring a rather fabulous art collection. And there's a future generation coming over the horizon from Hermann and Clarissa's previous liaisons - Hermann's daughter Lulu (Nicola Schossler), and Clarissa's son Arnold (Bjorn Klein).

The only Gunnar you'll catch me supporting in May 2005: Uwe Steimle puts his DM29.80 chisel to good use As ever, Reitz is at his best when he plays the long game - setting up small details in early episodes that pay off much later down the line. For fans of the original series, there are some subtle visual motifs that make a welcome reappearance, and some ingenious narrative echoes. And there are still certain things Reitz depicts better than any other director I know: like illness, or the tense surrealism of your typical family funeral. But curiously, the visual splendour of the earlier series is more or less lost - the traditional switches between B&W and colour are now more or less random, ceasing completely around episode five, and there are generally very few jaw-dropping visual moments. (With the exception of a sequence where the Americans pull out of the local missile base, possibly the only bit of full-on Dolby Digital CGI-enhanced spectacle in the whole saga.)

Watching Hermann and Clarissa trying desperately to keep a relationship going as they hop between European capitals is all very nice to look at, but it kills the story for two reasons. Firstly, it's hard to feel sorry for them: secondly, it destroys the sense of place that made Heimat such an overwhelming experience. The first series was closely tied to the town of Schabbach, rarely venturing outside, and after sixteen hours of repetitive tracks along its roads even a casual viewer could have drawn up a passable map of the place. The wide geographic spread of this story makes for more spectacle (and presumably keeps the international co-producers happy), but something's lost as a result.

Heimat 3's more interesting when it focusses on its peripheral characters, and you suspect Reitz knows this too. At one point in the second episode, it looks as if the main thrust of the story will actually involve the builders Hermann and Clarissa have imported from East Germany, and the whole series will turn into, er, whatever the German for Auf Wiedersehen Pet is. In fact, possibly the most interesting thing about this series is its focus on the people who have come into Schabbach from outside - be they the East Germans, a planeload of refugees from the former Soviet Union, or Hermann's daughter fresh from college - and the impact they all have on a smalltown mindset, for better or worse.

But far too often, the characters are treated as ciphers in a plot that feels more like a 1990s history checklist. Reunification? Tick. World Cup? Tick. Economic migrants? Tick. The beauty of the first two series of Heimat was that even with the massive forces of history behind the plot, that plot was always driven by its characters: here, the characters are pushed around to make the history work. Worst of all, the plot tends to be moved forward by coincidences, and this is too earthbound a tale to get away with that. You can just about accept the huge coincidence of Hermann and Clarissa's reunion that gets the story started, but it's a trick that's overused here. When one episode pivots on two characters being in precisely the wrong place at the wrong time, the contrivance involved is just too painful to watch.

I'd say on the whole Heimat 3 is worth seeing, but with an important caveat for anyone who loved the earlier series: it's Very Good Telly. You can think of it as Our Friends In The Hunsruck, if you like. But it's just Very Good Telly, and I suspect most Heimat fans were expecting something more cinematic. Still, Reitz now has the whole of the 20th century recorded in his tale, and hopefully he'll find new, non-Simon family projects to keep him occupied from now on. Given the somewhat predictable nature of his use of history in Heimat 3, you hope he doesn't feel the need to continue with Heimat 4 and ruin all his previous good work. I don't think I could cope with seeing Hermann and Clarissa playing a concert in New York in September 2001. Being a monkey, and all.

Links

Heimat 3 has an official site with all the material you'd expect - in fact, it's had an official site since around 2002 when production started, and there were frequent updates all the way up to the Christmas 2004 release of the finished product in Germany. Curiously, the English-language section of the site stopped being accessible around that time, but you can get into it via the back door from here. Watch out for comprehensive spoilers in the episode synopses.

Die Zweite Heimat is actually a fan site for the whole trilogy, not just the second part as the title might imply. A definite labour of love, it contains highly detailed analyses of all the episodes, plus news of where and how you can see them.

Artificial Eye are dealing with the cinema distribution of Heimat 3 in the UK, and have their own microsite [dead link] for the series. At the time of writing it's only showing in London (from May 6th to June 2nd 2005 at the Renoir cinema), but there are plans for screenings elsewhere in the UK, including Dundee [dead link] and Dublin [dead link]. Check your local arthouse for details.

Radio Times should be able to tell you when Heimat 3 is being shown on British telly. I believe the current plans are for all three series to play on BBC 4 starting on Friday May 27th, with a BBC 2 screening of Heimat 3 to follow some time after. Nothing concrete yet, though, so keep watching the schedules.

Travel For Kids can tell you about fun things to do if you decide to make a fan pilgrimage to the Hunsruck.

Doctor Who is currently doing very nicely indeed, despite my sniping at Christopher Eccleston above. And sneakily, they've snuck a couple of URLs onscreen in the show that actually lead to well-maintained viral promotion sites - Who Is The Doctor and U.N.I.T. So when the address http://www.schabbach.de was bandied around in the final episode of Heimat 3, I'd assumed that this was Reitz trying to do something similar. But no: it's actually a real-life commercial site owned by software consultant Stefan Schabbach, who appears to be amused enough by the unwanted attention to put a link back to the official Heimat 3 site on his front page. [He's taken it off now.]

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