Heimat 3 (15)

The final stretch before home
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The Independent Culture

Previously on Heimat... You might suppose there's a lot of back story to catch up with before you get started on Heimat 3, the third tranche of Edgar Reitz's monumental portrait of 20th-century Germany. Indeed there is - all of German history from 1919 to the late Eighties. Even if you saw the original 11-part Heimat (1984), you may have forgotten the history of the Simon family, or perhaps, like me, you never caught the even longer (25-and-a-half-hour) second section Die Zweite Heimat (1992).

Previously on Heimat... You might suppose there's a lot of back story to catch up with before you get started on Heimat 3, the third tranche of Edgar Reitz's monumental portrait of 20th-century Germany. Indeed there is - all of German history from 1919 to the late Eighties. Even if you saw the original 11-part Heimat (1984), you may have forgotten the history of the Simon family, or perhaps, like me, you never caught the even longer (25-and-a-half-hour) second section Die Zweite Heimat (1992).

But it doesn't matter if you join the story here. This concluding section of Reitz's chronicle doesn't assume any knowledge of the first two, and besides, daunting a prospect as it might seem - a six-part, 680-minute panorama of modern European history - Heimat 3 is simply the most engrossing, downright pleasurable piece of storytelling I've seen this year.

Reitz's saga has followed several generations from the small town of Schabbach, in Germany's Hunsrück region, from the aftermath of the First World War and the rise of Nazism, through the Economic Miracle and the social unrest of the Sixties and Seventies. After a second section which left Schabbach behind, the series returns to base, to the Heimat itself: the word, meaning "homeland", acquired compromising overtones in the last century, and Reitz's project has been to reclaim the idea of home from nationalistic ideology, in the course of a sort of archaeological reading of modern German identity.

Heimat 3 begins in Berlin in 1989, on the very night when the Wall starts to come down. By a remarkable coincidence - and throughout, Reitz administers his many coincidences and contrivances with a lightly ironic conjurer's touch - another reunification takes place that night, as composer-conductor Hermann Simon (Henry Arnold, an unnerving ringer for Gary Lineker) bumps into his lost love, opera singer Clarissa (Salome Kammer). The two seal their union by undertaking to rebuild Clarissa's dream home, a crumbling hilltop house overlooking the Rhine, and a stone's throw from Schabbach itself, first seen looming out of Romantic mists.

Reitz quickly brings us up to scratch on the rest of the Simon clan, notably Hermann's brothers, patriarchal industrialist Anton (Matthias Kniesbeck) and the equally wealthy but decidedly oddball Ernst (Michael Kausch), an aviator-hermit who has accumulated a hoard of rare paintings - spoils of post-war disruption - and salted them away in an old slate mine. Other key players include Anton's son Hartmut (Christian Leonard), an arrogant playboy; Russian immigrant Galina (Larissa Iwlewa), who arrives with the first influx from the former Soviet Union; and Gunnar (Uwe Steimle), a hugely engaging tragi-comic figure whose woes are central to the film's argument about reunification's effect on the East. Essentially the film's picaresque anti-hero, Gunnar is a builder from Leipzig, whom Clarissa hires to work on her house; he's happy to enjoy the new bonanza in the West, but inevitably this Eldorado proves a mixed blessing for him. He's soon licking his wounds back in Berlin, before cashing in, in a broad but sly comic episode, on the craze for souvenirs chipped off the demolished Wall.

The key theme of Heimat 3 is the fate of the old East, its absorption and exploitation by the West. Its fourth part revolves around Matko (Patrick Mayer), a boy from the former Yugoslavia, who gets fatefully embroiled in Simon family business; while in part two, Ernst visits an East German airfield, where a stockpile of military equipment is being decommissioned: "This is what it's like when a country is dismantled," says an officer. Heimat 3 is full of images of abandonment: factories, US bases, apartments left to moulder with all the bric-a-brac of the old East Germany still lying around: there's none of the fondly reassuring nostalgia, or "Ostalgia", seen in the satirically benign Good Bye Lenin!. The sense of "home" implicit in Reitz's title becomes especially problematic: what does "home" mean in a period of such radical displacement and dislocation? No wonder the crazy old man encountered in part four is stricken by millennium panic, terrified that the Rhine will start flowing backwards.

Attempting to capture the mood and meaning of an era, Reitz's is one of those rare contemporary projects that hark back to the confident energies of the 19th-century novel: with its Dallas-like boardroom intrigues and its theme of inheritance, the film shares Balzac's awareness of the relentless subterranean flow of money in times of change. In its scale and its juggling of registers, the closest modern literary equivalent to Heimat 3 is probably Angus Wilson's series of neo-Dickensian novels of Britain in the Fifties and Sixties.

But Heimat 3 ventures beyond the everyday in drumming up mythic, even cosmic resonances. Natural phenomena - earthquakes, thunderstorms, eclipses - are forever looming, making Heimat 3 an exercise in seismic realism. The metaphysical thrust of German romanticism is here too: when Hermann first sets eyes on his old homeland, a Roman centurion appears, galloping across the landscape (although he turns out to be nothing more mysterious than part of a local folk pageant). And the entire drama hangs on a sort of mythic opposition between kingdoms high and low - the house perched on its cliff, miraculously rising from the ruins (at the very moment the Wall is collapsing), and the depths of Ernst's cache of artworks, his "Nibelung's hideaway" as one character puts it. It's no accident that Reitz's central character is a composer: conceived on a symphonic scale, Heimat 3 is rich in counterpoints, rippling with leitmotifs.

If this sounds bombastic, nevertheless Reitz and his co-writer, novelist Thomas Brussig, thread their themes with a dazzling lightness of touch. Constantly shifting registers, Heimat 3 takes in sour social comedy (Gunnar's progress), poignant marital drama (Hermann and Clarissa sail into stormy waters in part four), and some riveting family melodrama involving the domineering Anton's attempt to tame his rebellious son. Reitz and Brussig keep the drama rolling on furiously, punctuating it with cliffhangers, sudden leaps and tantalising dead ends, as characters are introduced, take centre stage, then vanish, only to reappear when least expected.

Although it was made for television - BBC4 starts screening all three series this month - it's absolutely worth finding time to watch Heimat 3 in the cinema. For one thing, it's visually imposing, with its genuinely breathtaking landscape images - vertiginous aerial views of the Rhine, fields of blinking airstrip lights, a chain of peace protestors stretching far away across the Hunsrück hills. But the big screen also allows you the total immersion that the film demands and repays. German cinema is currently enjoying something of an artistic and commercial revival, with the remarkable Downfall and the less impressive The Edukators; Heimat 3 is something else again, a work of extraordinary ambition, energy and insight. More than this, it's a vibrant expression of confidence in the spell-binding power of traditional narrative cinema - a hybrid of docu-drama, TV soap and page-turning roman fleuve, that leaves you wanting to go right back to 1919 and start the saga again.

j.romney@independent.co.uk

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