Heimat Review

Edgar Reitz’s Heimat is one of the great achievements of both film and television. It was made for both media – financed as a serial for West German television (originally in eleven episodes, but more of that below) but shot on 35mm film and intended for cinema exhibition as well. We live in, we are told, a golden age for long form television drama, but it’s not the only such time. In the last seven years or so, since The Killing’s first broadcast on BBC2 (four years after it was made) , foreign-language drama, especially from European countries, has made a significant impact in the UK. But three decades earlier, there had Heimat. Its only real rival from the time, on both big screens and smaller ones, is Dekalog.

The majority of the action of Heimat (there's not an exact equivalent in English but it translates, roughly, as “Homeland”) takes place in the fictional village of Schabbach, in the Hunsrück region of Germany, close to the Luxembourg border. The story begins in 1919, as Paul Simon (Michael Lesch) returns home from the Great War. He’s expected to return to the family trade of blacksmithing, but wishes to pursue his interest in radio communications. Although he marries Maria Wiegand (Marita Breuer), the mayor’s daughter, and they have two sons, he still feels ill at ease. At the end of the first episode, he goes out for a beer and doesn’t come back. Although we know where he has gone – there’s a brief scene showing Paul at Ellis Island, New York in Episode Two – his disappearance remains a mystery to the villagers for some years to come.

Heimat is many things. It’s a portrait of German life and the way it changes through much of the twentieth century. It’s an epic soap opera, which is not an insult in my book as it has the narrative drive and indelible characters of the best soaps. If you surrender to its grip, then the fifteen and a half hours will slip by effortlessly. All human life is here: tragedy, comedy, love and death, and those simple epiphanic moments of everyday life. Reitz is drawing on a German tradition, known as the Heimatfilme – which he nods to when Maria and her sister-in-law Pauline (Eva Maria Bayerwaltes) go to the cinema to see... Heimat, the 1938 film of that name. Heimatfilme were known for their rural settings and sentimental outlook. As this Heimat film certainly has the former but definitely not the latter, the reference is clearly ironic.

Inevitably much of the story deals with the Second World War years, and its fascinating to see the way this develops. There are casual disparaging remarks against Jews and gypsies early on, talk of Hitler in Berlin as the sort of strong leader Germany needs after the stab in the back the country received at the ending of the Great War, the mayor’s son Wilfried Wiegand going away to become something big in the SS…and before you know it you see Nazi armbands everywhere you look. Watch this and ask yourself if this could ever happen again. It couldn’t, could it…?

Edgar Reitz (born 1932) first made his name as one of the twenty-six young directors who signed the Oberhausen Manifesto, announced at that city's Short Film Festival in 1962. The manifesto declared that the old film was dead, and demanded a new type of cinema – from directors who at the time had not yet made their own first features. Reitz made his in 1967. However, at the end of the following decade, he was at a low ebb. His 1979 film The Tailor of Ulm had been an expensive failure, leaving him with considerable debts. At the same time, he had watched the American television series Holocaust and had taken offence at its melodrama. Snowbound on the island of Sylt, unable to leave until the weather changed, Reitz wrote a basic draft of what would become not just Heimat, but its sequels and prequel, a project which would take him thirty years to complete. Peter Steinbach collaborated with him on the screenplay, based on the region where Reitz came from, and of his youth. Before the series went into production, Reitz made a documentary, Tales from the Hunsrück Villages (included as an extra on this release), in which he interviewed people from the region, and some of their stories were incorporated in the screenplay of Heimat. The success of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's similarly lengthy Berlin Alexanderplatz (itself to be released on Blu-ray by Second Sight), four years earlier, helped in getting Heimat financed.

The series was five years in the making. During the shoot, the actors (mostly professionals if not well known) lived in the village where it was shot, often lodging with local families who would help the production out, not least making sure the dialect the characters speak was accurate. Heimat premiered at the 1984 Munich Film Festival. After playing at the same year’s London Film Festival, it had its British cinema release (in four parts) in a four-week run from 16 February 1985 at the now-defunct Lumiere Cinema in St Martin's Lane, London. It had its first British television showing on BBC2 over eleven consecutive nights starting from 19 April 1986 and was repeated, one episode a week this time, in 1988.

Marita Breuer gives a luminous performance as Maria, ageing entirely convincingly from 19 to 82 during the serial. (She was actually twenty-seven at the start of production.) Karl, nicknamed Glasisch, is played by Kurt Wagner throughout, over the same age span and with equally convincing ageing makeup. Glasisch, who returned from the Great War at the start, is the son of Marie-Goot Schirmer, sister of Maria’s mother-in-law Katharina Simon, and sees more about the life of his fellow villagers than he is given credit for. Glasisch also acts as the series’s narrator, and provides recaps at the start of each episode. However, it’s hard to single out anyone’s performance as the acting is uniformly excellent.

Although certain characters do take prominence (particularly Maria, as the story ends in 1982 with her death and funeral), Heimat is really an ensemble piece. In a way, the central character is the village itself and the way it changes over the years. A recurring theme is technology and communications and the effects they have. Early on, we see the first car and the first motorbike, the telephone, radio, the building of the highway, the arrival of television. Cinema, too: from still photography, a particular hobby of Maria's brother-in-law Eduard Simon, to Maria's eldest son Anton's interest in filmmaking which leads to him establishing an optics business in the region after he returns from the War. Another major theme is leaving and returning: frequently Reitz will aim his camera down a long road, with a character either walking away or approaching. Reitz’s direction doesn’t generally draw attention to itself (except in one respect which I’ll return to in a moment), but it’s precision itself, helped no end by Heidi Handorf’s editing. It’s never excessively fast-moving, but paced just right.

Another standout technical contribution is Gernot Roll’s camerawork. Heimat mixes black and white and colour throughout. Reitz has stated that he used colour to emphasise certain elements but otherwise there’s no pattern to it. Reitz and Roll shoot individual shots in colour, sometimes whole scenes. There’s the occasional scene given the half-emphasis of sepia and a very few shots where an object is picked out in colour in an otherwise black and white frame. This technique could have been unbearably self conscious but it does work very well. Oddly enough, a short moment of colour when your eyes have accustomed themselves to black and white does have the effect of making the colour more vivid. Although I’m quite prepared to believe that the colour choices are largely intuitive certain patterns do occur. The wartime episodes are virtually all in black and white, using colour sparingly. On the other hand, the ninth and eleventh episodes reverse the pattern, being mostly in colour so that the scenes which are in black and white (tracing Maria’s youngest son Hermann’s ill-fated affair with Klärchen in the former; flashbacks in the latter) stand out as a result.

The impact of Heimat worldwide, both in the cinema and on twenty-six countries’ television sets, was immense. It was voted one of the top fifty programmes shown on BBC2 in a poll for the station’s fortieth anniversary in 2004. The Second Heimat (Die zweite Heimat) followed in 1992, comprising thirteen feature-length episodes, totalling twenty-six hours. In this, Reitz follows Hermann to Munich, after he leaves Schabbach in the wake of the breakup with his affair with Klärchen, and the friends he makes there in the 1960s – a second “Heimat”, the one you make rather than the one you are born into. This had cinema releases in some countries, but not the UK, making it one of the longest films ever commercially exhibited. This is not a sequel in the usual sense, for two reasons. Chronologically, it takes place between episodes nine and eleven, overlapping episode ten, of the serial (episodes six and seven of the current configuration, see below for more details) so it is an “interquel”. Secondly, as well as recasting the lead role (Peter Harting as the adult Hermann in the first Heimat, Henry Arnold from then on), the details of Hermann’s life in both series don’t correspond with each other, so The Second Heimat is an alternate history after a fashion.

Heimat 3, which takes Hermann and his friends from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the end of the Millennium in six episodes and eleven hours, followed in 2004. Heimat Fragments: The Women  (Heimat Fragmente: Die Frauen) from 2006, followed Hermann’s daughter Simone in the early new millennium with an examination of her family’s past, made up from deleted scenes from the previous three series. Then in 2013, Reitz made Home from Home: Chronicle of a Vision (Die andere Heimat'; Chronik einer Sehnsucht) for the cinema. In this, Reitz went back in time to Schabbach in the 1840s, and the ancestors of the characters in the earlier series.

Heimat is a masterpiece of both cinema and television, and amply rewards repeated viewings. The one for this review was my fourth, following the 1988 BBC2 television showing (I'd missed it previously due to being at University) and twice on DVD (which I reviewed here). This digitally-restored version was the first time I had seen the series in high definition, as I didn’t see it on its cinema run back in 1985. It’s well worth revisiting, or visiting for the first time. Let's hope that similar remasterings and Blu-ray releases of The Second Heimat and Heimat 3 will be forthcoming.


Heimat is released by Second Sight in a limited-edition Blu-ray, over six discs encoded for Region B only. The series carries the 15 certificate it always has had.

Disc One - Episode One: The Call of Faraway Places (Fernweh) (1919-1928) 119:36 | Episode Two: The Centre of the World (Die Mitte der Welt) (1929-1933) 89:47

Disc Two - Episode Three: The Best Christmas Ever (Weihnacht wie noch nie) (1935)/The Highway (Reichshöhenstraße) (1938) 113:48 | Episode Four: Up and Away and Back (Auf und davon und zurück) (1938-1939)/The Home Front (Heimatfront) (1943) 112:48

Disc Three - Episode Five: Soldiers and Love (Die Liebe der Soldaten) (1944) / The American (Der Amerikaner) (1963-1967) 156:20

Disc Four - Episode Six: Little Hermann (Hermännchen) (1955-1956) 138:45

Disc Five - Episode Seven: The Proud Years (Die stolzen Jahre) (1967)/The Feast of the Living and the Dead (Das Fest der Ledenden und der Toten) (1982) 158:14

This release is derived from the digital remastering of Heimat, which took place between 2011 and 2014 and was supervised by Christian Reitz, Edgar’s son, who was the stills photographer on this series and was a cinematographer on the later ones. There are some changes between the version shown on BBC2 and previously released on DVD. Firstly, as you will see from the listing above, the series is now in seven episodes instead of eleven. The eleven episodes varied in length from just under an hour to just over two and a quarter, and the reduced episode count has been achieved by joining pairs of episodes together. The episode titles still appear where they always have done, even in the case of four of them in the middle of an episode, but episode numbers have been removed. There is a new opening title sequence, which now calls the series “Eine deutsche Chronik” (a German chronicle) rather than the previous “Eine Chronik in elf Teilen” (a chronicle in eleven films). The end credits for each episode have been remade and now have two copyright dates, 1984 and 2015. As far as content goes, that's mostly the same. End credits have been removed when they would now appear in the middle of an episode. However, nine out of ten of Glasisch's recaps, where he talks over still photographs (some of which couldn't have been taken at the time, but never mind) or at the start of the original eleventh episode, an illustration of the Simon, Weigand and Schirmer family trees, remain. (One thing I noticed this time round: Glasisch's own place on this family tree gives his death date, so he's narrating from beyond the grave.) The one exception is the recap which would have been at the start of “The American”, which has been removed. The other change that I have found is noticeable if you compare the running times above with those on the Tartan disc, which I gave in that review: “The Feast of the Living and the Dead”, which did have its longueurs I have to say, has been shortened by some twenty minutes.

Another difference is in the aspect ratio. On the BBC2 broadcasts and on DVD, episodes were presented in 1.33:1. That's as you would expect for a television production from before the widescreen era, and I rashly said on my DVD review that that was correct. Apparently not: the Blu-ray transfer is 1.66:1. Although Reitz and Roll do compose shots quite tightly, I'm now convinced that the wider ratio is the correct one, no doubt coming about because this was intended for cinema showings as well as television ones. (I don't know which ratio the Lumiere showed it in – it was a cinema capable of showing Academy Ratio if it needed to.) One giveaway that 1.33:1 is an open-matte ratio rather than the intended one is that there are framing adjustments which would not be made if the shots were actually intended for the narrower ratio. A good example is right at the start of “Soldiers and Love”, when the camera tilts up to take in the Moon just at the point where Glasisch's narration refers to it. In 4:3 it's wholly in shot throughout.

As for the transfer itself, in colour, black and white, sepia and colour-within-monochrome, high definition reveals textures, due to the use of different film stocks, that weren't so apparent in standard definition, which tends to flatten these distinctions to simply colour versus black and white. Roll's camerawork is stunning throughout, and grain is natural and filmlike. The transfer is 1080i50, reflecting that the series was shot at twenty-five frames per second, due to its being made to be shown on (PAL) television, rather than the cinematic twenty-four fps. (There's a small mystery due to this. The BBFC's certification for cinema release is only three minutes longer than that of the DVDs. The latter are definitely PAL and 25 fps, while a cinema showing at 24 fps would add about thirty-six minutes to the running time of a film this long. If Glasisch's episode recaps were removed, that might account for the shortfall, but I have not been able to confirm if that was the case.) Among the extras, the Tales from the Hunsrück Villages documentary and the Daniel Bird visual essay are also 1080i50, while the four interviews are 1080p24.

The soundtrack is the original mono, rendered as LPCM 2.0, and it's clear and well balanced throughout. The majority of the dialogue is in German, with brief snatches of English and French, the latter intentionally left untranslated. The English subtitles for the German dialogue are fixed, so you don't have the option of switching them off if your command of the language is sufficient.

The extras are all on Disc Six. They begin with the documentary Tales from the Hunsrück Villages (Gesichten aus den Hunsrückdörfern) (113:17), mentioned above. This does show that many of the ideas for the then-to-be-made serial were still in place, along with some of the personnel: Peter Steinbach as co-writer, Heidi Handorf as editor, Nikos Mamangakis as score composer. However, Reitz served as his own cinematographer, which he had done on some of his previous features, and ones for other directors, including his fellow Oberhausen signatory Alexander Kluge's debut feature Yesterday Girl. Shooting in 35mm, Reitz is already mixing colour with black and white. This is presented in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1, which certainly looks correct.

All but one of the remaining extras on this disc are new interviews. First up is Edgar Reitz (38:39). After talking about his early career and the origins of Heimat, he goes on to define the epic mode of storytelling that he made use of: not so much driven by suspense and plot dynamics, but the portrayal of time. This was something he accidentally learned during the production of The Tailor of Ulm, when ten hours of unedited rushes seemed too short, but two hours of the finished and edited film felt too long. He grew up during the war years, when all the adult men in his village had gone away to fight, and it was the women who kept the community going – so, he says, if he got the women right in Heimat, the rest would follow. He also talks about the scene in the final episode where one character is met by the ghosts of all the characters who had died in the series up to then.

Christian Reitz talks about the restoration of Heimat (17:24). If you have any interest in the subject of film restoration and digital remastering, this item will certainly be of interest, though it may be too technical for others. Reitz begins by describing the process of film restoration in general though certainly detailed terms, before going on to the specifics of restoring Heimat itself, both the picture and the sound.

Marita Breuer (11:18) talks about how she was cast in the film. Originally considered for the role of Pauline, Reitz cast her when the original actress playing Maria was unable to take the role due to other commitments. Originally, Breuer was only going to play Maria in the first few episodes, with older actresses continuing the role later, but Reitz decided to retain her for the wartime episodes, and the affair with Otto Wohlleben (Jörg Hube) which results in Hermann's birth, by which time Maria is in her forties. Reitz then decided that Breuer would, with the help of padding and make-up wrinkles, play Maria throughout. Other than Karl Wagner as Glasisch, Maria is the only character seen over a span of more than a few years played by the same actor throughout. Breuer credits Gernot Roll in particular for helping her to learn how to act in front of a camera.

Jan Harlan (12:16) was Stanley Kubrick's longtime assistant as well as his brother-in-law. German-born, he is interviewed in English (both Reitzes and Breuer speak in German, with English subtitles provided). Harlan saw Heimat during its run at the Lumiere and insisted Kubrick see the film, which he did and it became one of his favourite films of the time. This featurette is entitled “Showing Not Telling”, which is, Harlan says, Reitz's method throughout. In this he compares Heimat to another great European television series from the Eighties, Dekalog, which was also a favourite of Kubrick's. Kubrick even hired Reitz's production designer, Franz Bauer, for his then-current project, the never-made Aryan Papers.

Daniel Bird contributes a visual essay (8:44) which is entitled “Memory and Technology: Photography and Filmmaking in Heimat”. As with Bird's contributions to other discs, he does not appear in person or speak in voiceover, but provides a series of captions over relevant extracts from the series, exploring the theme.

Also included in this release, but not available for review, is a fifty-page paperback book containing liner notes by Carmen Gray and the articles “The Collaboration with Gernot Roll” by Edgar Reitz and “Germany as Memory” by Anton Kaes.

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Edgar Reitz's epic is a masterpiece of both film and television, now digitally restored and released on Blu-ray by Second Sight.


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