No place like Heimat

After 13 years, Edgar Reitz has at last delivered the final part of his epic trilogy. Gerard Gilbert asks him why it took so long
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The Independent Culture

The epic films of Edgar Reitz have been compared by some to the works of Tolstoy, by others to soap operas. Reitz himself says that his inspiration was Marcel Proust, and the connection seems suddenly so obvious that I'm surprised nobody has made it before. "I loved Proust's details and his historical perspective," says the German writer-director when I meet him in London.

The epic films of Edgar Reitz have been compared by some to the works of Tolstoy, by others to soap operas. Reitz himself says that his inspiration was Marcel Proust, and the connection seems suddenly so obvious that I'm surprised nobody has made it before. "I loved Proust's details and his historical perspective," says the German writer-director when I meet him in London.

He was in town to promote Heimat 3, the concluding (or maybe not, as we shall see later) part of his staggering trilogy, which has been 25 years in the making. The original Heimat was a sensation in 1984, when cinema audiences were asked to sit through all 15 hours 40 minutes of it over four consecutive nights. Set in a village in the remote Hunsruck region of West Germany, Heimat followed one extended family, the Simons, from the end of 1919 to 1982, from the Weimar Republic to the Federal Republic. It challenged simplistic ideas about the rise of Nazism, while hooking viewers to a tale of rural people leading ordinary lives. BBC2 later screened this colossus over 11 consecutive nights, and on the channel's 40th birthday last year, Heimat was voted one of its 40 highlights - the only foreign name on a list that ranged from Civilisation to Fawlty Towers. Don't mention the war? Heimat did, but in a tantalisingly oblique manner.

Heimat 2 followed the musically inclined son of the Simon family, Hermann to the Munich of the 1960s, focusing on the city's artistic avant-garde . But at the centre of the film, which was even longer than the original Heimat, was a love story of almost Wagnerian resonance - between the composer Hermann and the cellist Clarissa. Fans will be happy to learn that Hermann and Clarissa, so tragically parted at the end of Heimat 2, are reunited at the beginning of Heimat 3.

"It was clear to me that the centre of the story would be Hermann and Clarissa again," says Reitz. "We start with them being reunited, and I realise that it's a slightly strange way to begin a film - with a happy ending." In an audaciously unabashed piece of plotting - one that does, however, seem to mirror life's habit of throwing up outrageous coincidences - Reitz has Hermann and Clarissa reunited while watching the fall of the Berlin Wall on the same airport lounge TV screen. Ever since 1989, while he was still filming Heimat 2, Reitz had never been in any doubt that Heimat 3 should start with the fall of the wall. "I remember exactly where I was at the time," he says. "I had just begun to film a scene in Heimat 2 that takes place in the former GDR, and I had asked the GDR government for permission to film and they'd refused. So I travelled on to Berlin to film there, and the night we arrived, the wall actually fell, and a few days later we were able to film on that strip without permission. It was as if the wall had actually fallen for us!"

Heimat 3, all 11 hours and 18 minutes of it, follows German history from the demise of Eastern Bloc communism to the dawn (literally) of the new millennium. "Ten years passed from the wall coming down and the point where we could actually start making the film, and in those 10 years, everything had changed," says Reitz. "In 1989 and 1990 - when Germany's football team won the World Cup - a euphoria took over the whole country. But then, 10 years later, none of that was left. What we had was a melancholy and that became the concept for the film."

The film follows the successful but now rootless musicians Hermann and Clarissa's attempts at building a home together. But why did Reitz choose to return the story to Hunsruck after Heimat 2's sojourn in Munich. Surely Berlin was the epicentre of change. "I believe that you need to be away from the centre in order to look at people's histories," he says. "Of course, the Hunsruck took part in all of that history, but there it is somehow more human and more comprehensible."

Indeed, by having a US air-force base in his fictionalised version of the region, Reitz is able to include the end of the Cold War. But Reitz denies that he is in any way a historian. "What it is is a consequence of narrative and storytelling. If the characters are to become real, we need to show where they live and when they live."

Several of the actors will already be familiar to fans of the original two Heimat films - Matthias Kniesbeck, who plays Anton, and Michael Kausch, who plays Ernst, have been here from the beginning, ageing nicely without the need for make-up. And the casting of Clarissa was always going to be a doddle. Reitz has been married to the actress and singer Salome Kammer for the past 10 years, having got together at the start of Heimat 2 despite their not inconsiderable age difference (Kammer is 45, while Reitz is 72). "If you imagine 25 years of shooting only one film, it has to be like that," he says. "Life has to mix with the work."

Many of the new faces to the Heimat trilogy were sourced in East Germany and Russia. Uwe Steimle is a cabaret star in the East. Apparently he does a wicked impersonation of the GDR's last strongman communist leader, Erich Honecker. And you couldn't find a face that shouts "Russia" quite as loudly as that of Larissa Iwlewa, who plays a seductive immigrant from St Petersburg. Authenticity in casting is important to Reitz. "For example, one of the things that was so striking to us in the West was the dialect of the East Germans. I wanted to capture that surprise at the way they speak."

While the cast may grow and evolve, some things remain the same - notably, the way that Heimat 3 changes from colour to black and white. "I use the technique to refresh the eyes," says Reitz, "to bring variety across the span of a long story. Also, I use black and white a lot for scenes set in the former GDR, to mark the fact this country only really now exists in the memory."

The final image of the film is, however, all blue. Set on New Year's morning 2000, Hermann's daughter Lulu is looking out at Berlin and she's crying. Her distraught face, caught in freeze-frame, dissolves into blue - an arresting image that suggests that if the Heimat story is to continue, it will continue with Lulu. "Yes," says Reitz. "If, then Lulu. I'm interested in her generation - born at the end of the 1960s to parents who themselves never really grew up. The film has an open ending. You obviously can't close such a long story as this with one scene that has a clear meaning."

But since each of the three Heimat films has taken 10 years to finance and produce, Reitz will be 82 by the time of a putative Heimat 4. "For 25 years, Heimat has dominated my life. At the moment, I'm calling it a trilogy, because it's a symbolic way of finishing it. But it is always possible to continue it because, by its very nature, Heimat is something that can never end."

'Heimat 3' (in six parts) opens at the Renoir cinema in London, WC1, on Friday, to 2 June. 'Heimat 2' is released on DVD by Tartan Videos on 23 May

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