Visionary Storytelling: Edgar Reitz’s Die Zweite Heimat

By John Mepham

I saw the first Heimat series in the cinema, 16 hours over four days. I watched the sequel Die Zweite Heimat on TV, 26 hours of film spread over 13 weekly episodes, and expected it to be less compelling. Yet it was compelling. It was exciting to see TV breaking out of the familiar limitations of small-scale, realist storytelling. TV is capacious enough to accommodate visionary image and epic story.

One way in which both of these films go beyond TV norms is that they are both ‘epics’, in the sense that while they tell many overlapping individual stories, in the manner of quality TV soaps, they also dramatise national history and collective social experience. Heimat told the story of the modernisation of rural Germany, from World War I to 1980. Die Zweite Heimat is subtitled ‘Chronicle of a Generation’ – the generation of students, artists and performers in Munich through the 60s.

The central protagonists in Die Zweite Heimat are avant-garde writers, musicians and film-makers. The avant-garde has always flattered itself that it is the agent, or the shock troop of history, pulling civilisation towards its future by heroically taking on the necessary functions of creative-destructive cultural activity. It has seen itself as saving civilisation from death by massification. But in Die Zweite Heimat the agents of history turn out to be elsewhere. The modernist avant-garde becomes increasingly disoriented. By the end of the 60s they, and their collective artistic projects, are in ruin. They are the victims and not the champions of a history that was all along being made behind their backs.

Their story is that of a generation that was metaphorically orphaned and homeless. These young people are in flight from their Nazi parents, and from their narrow-minded, intolerant, small-town mentality. The group meet as students in Munich and there they attempt to create a ‘second home’ or ‘homeland’ for themselves, the ‘Zweite Heimat’ of the title, a homely environment of friendships, love and collective artistic projects. In the words of Herman Simon, the central protagonist, ‘I left for Munich’s bright lights and mysteries… I refused to look back even once. Ahead of me lay freedom. I would be born a second time, not from my mother’s body but from my own mind. I would seek my own, my second home.’ That desire, to have come from somewhere else, to deny his origins, is a worm that eats into the heart of his life. The film traces the fortunes of this ambitious, and ultimately doomed, quest for self-parturition, and highlights the connections between individual lives and the social and political dramas of that decade.

These young people were, as Alex the philosopher says, ‘Kennedy’s children’, intelligent and free and young, with a sense of their own importance, for they would break out of the rigid philistinism of bourgeois German culture, not by joining the opposing camp, represented by the small-minded vulgarian Nikita Khruschev, but through youth and art. When President Kennedy said, ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’, he seemed to open a protected space for them, for their individualism and their intelligence, and to legitimate their commitment to salvation through art. It was a collective family romance. When Kennedy was assassinated the fantasy evaporated. They were once again shadowed by the crimes of their real parents and the tub-thumping politics of the superpowers. From this point on, they begin to drift into sordid compromises or other culs-de-sac of the spirit. The film-maker Stefan is corrupted by commercial values, the poet Helga eventually becomes a terrorist, Alex the philosopher drinks himself to death.

So the shock of Kennedy’s death had a particular meaning for this group. It put their collective identity, and their ways of thinking about their future, in question. When they hear of the assassination they collect together in Herman’s room. The episode closes with a stagy, non-naturalistic shot, a fabricated image of their plight. They all look up simultaneously to a mirror and contemplate their collective image, as if to say ‘Who are we then?’ (On many occasions in the series, Herman also stares at his mirror image as if wondering what, if anything, he has succeeded in making of himself.) On the mirror is pasted a photograph of Khruschev smiling at Kennedy. Even this vulgar and brutal Russian seems to be under Kennedy’s spell, so we can understand how his death immediately plunged these ‘orphans’ back into homelessness. There will be no charmed space for their activities in the world of Cold War confrontation.

This shot of the group turning towards the mirror and contemplating its possibilities breaks with realism, for they all freeze together in a posed or staged tableau. They look round together toward the mirror, toward the director who is composing them into a significant image, toward the viewer who is asking them what will happen next. The visual metaphor very precisely articulates the contradictions of their predicament: they are needy people, huddling together for warmth in this surrogate family (it is shot in the glowing orange light which we recognise as the colour of their night-time camaraderie). Their romance is shattered, so they look to the mirror not with narcissistic satisfaction but with anxiety and uncertainty. But they are also thinking people who want their lives to shape up according to some thought-out project. They want to make history. They want their art to make a difference, to be not just a home but also a homeland.

What this shot exemplifies is Reitz’s method of moving beyond naturalistic image-making and the conventions of realist storytelling, to conjure up a polysemic image, which transcends its literal meaning and proposes a symbolic framework in terms of which we can read the entire episode. In this conspicuously staged or posed scene we remain within the coherent, fictional world. At the level of literal meaning we know where we are and what is going on. But the narrative is nudged, by a very subtle moment of frame-breaking, into a different dimension which foregrounds non-literal levels of meaning. The image offers a cluster of metaphors, and like all good metaphors it is open to different readings, so meanings proliferate. The image is like a proposal which says not so much ‘this happened’, but ‘think of it like this’.

Not only the form but also the content of this image identifies another of the ways in which Die Zweite Heimat is so unusual as TV drama. For its characters have the habit of thinking. This is for them an activity as natural and as necessary as breathing. They work at finding the right word, they search for conceptual clarity. Working with ideas is for them an existential matter. How unused we are to characters who take ideas seriously. These people are not content to live life from day to day or to keep their heads down, concentrating only on local and short-term questions. They want their lives to connect with longer term issues of art, history and politics. They want to think their way through to a sense of purpose.

These needs and pleasures are not familiar in British film or TV. Why is it so hard to imagine an English actor being able to say, as Herman Simon says of the randomness at the heart of his music, that ‘chance is the form taken by fate in a godless world’? Why is it so hard to imagine a character in an English film saying, as Reitz himself quite unselfconsciously says, that he makes films ‘to snatch something from the jaws of death because we love it’? I suppose that the fear of sounding pretentious, the intensity of embarrassment, would force an English actor to say such things ironically, as if to say ‘Forgive me, I’ve had a solemn thought’. The trouble is that embarrassment defeats truth-telling, for in fact people do have such thoughts. In the 60s and 70s, thinking which invoked grand themes of historical memory, social project or moral and existential anxiety was as much a feature of life as were the sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll in terms of which the period is now always, falsely, represented.

There is some quite general failure here, a failure of dramatic imagination, a clumsiness in the depiction of interiority, which makes so much so-called ‘quality’ drama seem thin and insubstantial. Consider, for example, the representation of intellectual life in British film and TV. The emphasis is usually lazily upon erotic adventure, individual career or comic incompetence, in the manner of Accident, The Glittering Prizes or The History Man. Whenever a character in such a drama is represented as thinking or as speaking of intellectual matters, the result is utterly inauthentic. The only TV films I can think of, apart from those of Edgar Reitz, which convincingly convey what it is to take the language of ideas seriously, are those of Krysztof Kieslowski, whose Decalogue films, like those of Reitz, combine storytelling with the working through of ideas.

The catalogue of Reitz’s uses of and departures from TV storytelling conventions would be a long one. It would include such points as his emphasis on coincidence, and his refusal of the kinds of endings in which all outstanding contradictions are resolved. Moreover, it would include Reitz’s unwillingness to satisfy the normal dramatic expectation that all plot enigmas must eventually be solved. For example, we know that the film-maker Reinhard disappears, but we are never told whether he has drowned by accident or suicide, or whether he has somehow contrived his own disappearance for his own purposes. We can weigh probabilities, but not look to the film itself for a definitive answer.

Of all the ways in which Die Zweite Heimat departs from the norms of realist drama, the most obvious, and most richly inventive, is the use of colour. The naturalistic film will always establish a norm, a taken-for-granted colour or black-and-white notation, that becomes accepted as the literal appearance of the fictional world. Because it becomes accepted it becomes insignificant, in the sense that the colour vocabulary is not seen as signifying anything other than literal information. What passes for poetic effect within such realist image-making is usually no more than a vague and cloying lyricism, a sentimentalised heightening of mood (think of those bluebells in Howard’s End).

In Die Zweite Heimat there is no privileged single notation. The film moves between black-and-white and a range of different colour vocabularies. The literal or naturalistic quality of the image is always in question, because there is no one style of image which we can accept as simply showing us what the fictional world is like. Therefore, we become used to looking for more than literal significance. Visual poetry becomes the norm, and light and colour become radiant with meaning.

From the very first episode we become used to the fact that within Reitz’s fictional world, daytime scenes are in black-and-white, and in contrast, night-time scenes are filmed in colour. He does not allow us the comfort of taking this as an abstract code or an absolute rule, because there are in fact many exceptions and variations. It is more a matter of using these contrasts as a way of showing how the characters live the daytime and the night-time differently. Usually the daytime is a time of dull worldly practicalities, and these have little meaning for these alienated young artists. The streets of Munich are experienced as cold and banal. It is at night that the students come alive and that their surroundings take on some warmth, excitement or erotic charge. The warm oranges and yellows of artificial lighting are associated with closed, homely interiors where music and intimate conversations are enjoyed, and love affairs are conducted. Herman had said, ‘I left for Munich’s bright lights and mysteries’, and it is as if he and his friends are not properly alive in daylight.

The night-time is associated not only with student conviviality but also with performance and often, in shots of performance, Reitz moves more and more away from naturalistic and towards more expressionist colour codes. It is as if these young people only come alive by artificial light, and they do it in bars, in bed with each other, in theatres, and there they discover warmth, fear, pain and erotic excitement. It is suggested, I think, that the life and warmth and excitement associated with these scenes are as artificial as the light is. These environments and moods are created when characters turn their backs on, or split off from, aspects of practical life (shops, cemeteries, work, children), and are cultivated as a kind of hothouse of evasions. Artifice and art take place in a world more and more divorced from the grey world of commerce, authorities, parents and money.

Colour is used not only to convey characters’ inner meanings, but for the director to propose to the viewer a framework of symbolic meanings through which to read the fictional world. This is sometimes the reason for colour being used in daytime scenes. A notable example of this symbolic use of colour is the opening of the ‘Kennedy’s Children’ episode, which is a colour sequence of the city at dawn, in which both the colour, the subject matter and the accompanying haunting music all announce symbolic intent. It is dawn, we see the early morning sky in distinct but muted grey-blue, and later pale reds. The camera pans slowly across colourless, bare, winter trees. The atmosphere is bleakly beautiful, elegiac. This is, we already know, the day on which, a continent away, President Kennedy will be assassinated. The rhythm of camera movement synchronises with the rhythm of music: it is a song, a setting of a poem about crows. We see flocks of crows circle in the sky and settle on bare branches. We see a lone crow fly across the city, and as it does so the colour fades to black and white.

The crows caw
like windblown leaves they scatter

to roost in town

soon it will snow

lucky is he who still has a home

The song suggests a way of thinking about this homeless generation and proposes to the viewer, ‘think of the protagonists like this’, like birds who have left the nest, ‘escaping into the world as winter comes’, and who are about to suffer a great loss. The colour is part of the way in which this point of view and this symbolic framework are established.

To illustrate in some detail Reitz’s use of colour in visionary images, let us look at two other examples. Perhaps the most extraordinary is that in which Rob, the cameraman, regains his sight after temporary blindness. His eyes are bandaged. His father takes him to the lakeside. This is a spot already heavy with narrative significance, for it was on this lake that, a year earlier, Reinhard had disappeared, and where his colleagues on his film crew and other friends had recently gathered in his memory. It is, then, at this spot that Rob will lift the bandages from his eyes to discover whether he can see again. In close-up we see him tentatively raising the covering from his eyes, screwing up his eyes with pain. The filmic code tells us that we will now see the world from his point of view. What we see is a visual image which offers us an imaginative equivalent of his experience, a hypothesis as to how the world would look to this character, with this predicament. We see, for a fraction of a second, a completely blank, very bright white screen, and then there is again a shot of his face.

Then we see a very extraordinary shot, and this is one of the most astonishing visionary moments of the film. We see the lake, but it is not as it has been shown a few moments earlier in a narrative shot (Reitz creates intensity of meaning by arranging contrasts). Instead of a vacant metal grey lake what we see is radiant, vibrant, as if, we can imagine, we are seeing natural sunlight for the first time. It is the experience of seeing by daylight defamiliarised and intensified, as if cleansed of the greyness of habit.

Now onto this radiant water, which shimmers with an extraordinarily beautiful blue, appears a boat which had not been there on the lake a few moments earlier. Is this Rob’s imagination? This is the world viewed not only with the unfamiliarity of a man returning from the world of the blind, but also under the pressure of his thought of and desire for his presumed dead friend, who had last been glimpsed right here, in this boat. It is the world illuminated by memory and desire.

One final example, the culminating moment in Herman’s story. After ten years away from his native village, after his ten years effort to give birth to himself, he finds himself alone, his life in disarray. His mind turns back to his mother. He writes to her for the first time. The sequence of shots offers us a view of his inner world (a sort of visual stream of consciousness). What he misses, because this is what he has wanted to create for ten years, is homeliness. His empty flat (he is separated from his wife and child) is not homely. He wants to escape from the night-time surrogates of homeliness that he and his friends have made for themselves and which he now experiences as empty and sterile. Herman says, ‘I was sure I had gone mad. I wanted to wake up. I wanted it to be day.’ He wants it to be not the banal black-and-white daytime of Munich but the daytime of his home village. His mind turns to his mother. We see his eyes and his mouth very close up, in very warm orange. His lips move, he practises mouthing the unfamiliar sounds, ‘Liebe Mutter’ (Dear mother), and the pace and silence are by now magical. We see what he sees, brief shots of the Hunsruck, where he was born, in muted daytime colours, pastoral blues and greens. The switching between the orange close-ups of his face and the open tranquil rural scenes give to the remembered or imagined images of the countryside a rich serenity, as though infused with very deep and archetypal desire. The great art is to have contrived that what in another context would be viewed as commonplace rural scenes (the shots are not particularly ‘beautiful’) should here be viewed as the carriers of such intense desire. It is by moving away from literal meaning in the use of colour that Reitz creates the space for these visionary effects. But it is by locating them within, or in contrast to, a realised fictional world, rather than having them freewheel in a phantasmagoric or surrealist manner (in the manner of Derek Jarman’s The Garden, for example) that he loads them with such very precise and convincing significance.

Taking together all the various points that I’ve mentioned here, what emerges as the pattern of Reitz’s aesthetic methods? He is clearly no postmodernist. He retains a very firm grip on a coherent fictional world and on its historical referents as the basis of his storytelling. He is not interested in dismantling story and image, nor in pastiche or other empty stylistic exercises. He has no taste for those unconventionalities which are designed merely to shock nor for meta-filmic self-absorption, in the manner of Peter Greenaway. He does not aim to tease or frustrate the viewer’s expectations merely to make a point or condescendingly to improve the viewer’s mental hygiene.

The film itself charts the loss of faith in post-war avant-gardist modernism, soon to be overtaken by the more dynamic experiments of advertising and rock videos. As Herman says (in episode ten, significantly titled ‘The End of the Future’), ‘The Beatles are doing it so much better.’ In Heimat this presages a return to his roots – to a more accessible music and to a respect for his regional dialect, a return, as we have seen above, to his mother. In Reitz’s own career, the equivalent was an abandonment of experimental film and a return, in Heimat itself, to storytelling. This is storytelling within popular TV formats, which avoids the pitfalls of commercial film-making. While rejecting avant-gardism, Reitz nonetheless wants to avoid the over-digested, pre-packaged simplicities of regular TV drama, presenting clichés for the viewer’s passive consumption. He aims to subvert the clichés of mimetic realism, not because he wants to remind his audience that his stories are made up, but because there are important things to be said that cannot be said within those forms. He does not subvert signification but enriches it, and he does this in the interests of truth-telling. His position is neither commercial cynicism nor meta-fictional scepticism, but non-mimetic truth-telling. The viewer is aware of the fact that these images are being fabricated, that image-making is not a passive recording of reality but is the director’s active meaning-making. But the motivation for this is clearly the director’s desire to find better meanings, meanings that are more subtle, more complex, more challenging, that point us towards better ways of thinking about both the fictional and the historical worlds and their inhabitants. What it asks of the viewer is to give up stock response and comfortable amnesia, and to be drawn into the process of finding meanings, in an active, intelligent participation in memory and history.

John Mepham teaches at Kingston University. He is the author of Virginia Woolf: A Literary Life and co-editor of the four-volume Issues in Marxist Philosophy. He was co-writer, with Marc Karlin, of the script of Between Times, a TV film about socialist aspirations in the 90s.