There's no place like home

It spanned 60 years and lasted 15 hours. It gave new meaning to the word 'epic'. More than that, the TV series 'Heimat' altered forever the perception of 20th-century German history as a cavalcade of droning bombers and VW Beetles. And now a third part is on the way. William Cook - who spent his own childhood denying his ancestry - considers its legacy

My British school days were a kindergarten Battle of the Bulge. I grew up, half German, a generation after the Second World War and my school friends fought the Hun in the playground every lunchtime. Despite my secret affinity for the Bosch, I usually played along. It wasn't much fun shooting Krauts, but it was even less fun being shot at. I sensed it would be a bad idea to tell them my grandfather had fought for Hitler's Wehrmacht, or that my father was born in Dresden, during the heyday of the Third Reich.

Eventually, my classmates grew out of gunning down sausage noshers, but once we learnt about the unique evil of the Holocaust, my father's German family stopped being school-yard baddies, and became something infinitely worse instead. German history, as we were taught it, began in 1914 and ended in 1945. Nothing had happened before the First World War, apart from medieval myths and legends. Nothing had happened since the Second World War, apart from Volkswagen Beetles and efficient football teams. Television reinforced this Germanophobic ethos. Hitler's Thousand Year Reich only lasted a dozen years, but on TV it really did seem like a millennium - from Secret Army in the Seventies to 'Allo 'Allo in the Eighties, plus The Dambusters or The Great Escape every bank holiday weekend. And then 20 years ago, along came the TV film Heimat - and our idea of Germans changed.

Spanning more than 60 years, from 1919 to 1982, Heimat combined the epic scope of a Victorian novel with the populist appeal of a contemporary soap opera. Comprising 11 episodes, each one like a little feature film, all in all it lasted over 15 hours. Yet unlike a lot of continental films, it wasn't remotely esoteric. You didn't watch it because it was good for you. You watched it, and kept watching it, because you cared about these characters, and couldn't wait to find out what would happen to them next. These Germans were flawed and fallible, but they weren't wicked or humourless. They were people you could relate to - people like you and me. Heimat wasn't about blond villains in jackboots or fat buffoons in lederhosen. It was about ordinary Germans, living through extraordinary times.

Heimat surveys the turbulent course of German history from the 1920s to the 1980s, through the eyes of a rural family in the Hunsrück - a remote corner of western Germany between the Moselle and the Rhine. From the Weimar Republic to the Federal Republic, from the Great War to the Cold War - these cataclysms transform their lives, yet their heimat, their shared sense of homeland, prevails. "Heimat" means something special, not just for Germans, but for all of us. It's not just the place you come from. It's the place where you belong.

For me, Heimat was a revelation, but you didn't have to be half-German to enjoy it. Its mesmeric screenplay was realistic yet poetic. Episodes flitted between colour and black-and-white, like recollections of a dream. Heimat didn't recall events so much as feelings. "When Heimat ended, I almost felt like I'd lost my own family," revealed one bereft British viewer, not in the bar of the National Film Theatre, but in a letter to the Daily Mail.

When BBC2 turned 40 this year, it listed Heimat among its 40 highlights - the only foreign programme on a list of home-grown classics, from Civilisation to Fawlty Towers. Yet thankfully for its many fans (and anyone who's yet to see it) Heimat isn't just movie history. It's an ongoing saga, and there's plenty more to come. In the Nineties, the show's creator, Edgar Reitz, made The Second Heimat, set in the Sixties. This month, he unveiled the third and final part of his masterpiece at the Venice Film Festival, and next month his first series is finally released in Britain on DVD.

Reitz's heimat is the Hunsrück, but his home is in Munich, where he's lived and worked since the Fifties, and where The Second Heimat is set. I met him there, in his homely office in Schwabing, the city's old bohemian quarter, where writers like Brecht and Ibsen (and troublemakers like Lenin and Hitler) once hung out. Reitz is in his early seventies now, but he's slim and lithe, with lively eyes. He could easily pass for 10 years younger. Despite his grey beard, you still get a sense of the young radical he once must have been. "I left for Munich's bright lights and mysteries, for Schwabing where all the artists lived," says Hermann Simon, Heimat's talented, tormented hero. "I would seek my own home, my chosen heimat." You can imagine the younger Reitz saying much the same thing.

Like a lot of artists, Reitz plays down the autobiographical element in his work. "Everything I write has something to do with me, but it's not me," he says. Yet superficially, at least, he bears some comparison with Heimat's central figure. Hermann Simon is born in the Hunsrück and comes to Munich to study music. Reitz was born in the Hunsrück and came to Munich to study drama, literature and journalism. Like Hermann, Reitz was the first member of his rural family to go to university. He started making movies in the late Fifties. In 1967, his first feature film, Mahlzeiten, won Best Debut Film at the Venice Film Festival. In the Seventies, he won further prizes for feature films like Die Reise Nach Wien (The Journey to Vienna) and Stunde Null (Hour Zero). Then at the end of the decade he split up with his wife and lost all his money on a film that flopped, and out of these crises came Heimat.

"I lost my apartment, I lost my car - everything," he says. "I didn't know where I was going to stay." Seeking solace, he went to Sylt, a windswept peninsula on the North Sea coast, only to be imprisoned by a freak snowstorm. "I couldn't leave the island. The snow was so high that even the trains weren't running. I sat in this house and thought: 'What have I done to deserve this?'" To try to make some sense of it all, he started writing. He wanted to work out why he'd become a film-maker in the first place, but he ended up writing about his parents and grandparents, and marvelling at how different his life was from theirs. "That was the beginning of the film - 100 pages about the origins of my family. The snow melted and I could go back home."

This first series of Heimat took Reitz 18 months to make. He used 200 actors and 5,000 extras. Its £2m budget seems modest today. Yet though its dimensions are grandiose, its scale is intensely human. Its births, marriages and deaths are more important than wars or revolutions. The rise and fall of the Third Reich is reflected in the rise and fall of the local know-all, whose son joins the SS and becomes the village tyrant because he's too sickly to fight on the Russian Front. Reitz's treatment of the Holocaust is similarly subtle and empathetic. Thankfully, we find it hard to imagine herding Jewish families into gas chambers. Regrettably, we can imagine doing nothing when brownshirts break their windows. In Heimat, less is more.

Reitz always wanted to call his film Heimat, but at first he didn't dare to, since this was a word that had been hijacked by the Nazis. Yet once he'd finished filming, he realised no other title would do. "I realised I had to use this word," he says. "It was necessary to describe the film, and my hope was that the Germans would redefine the word and, in fact, this has happened. The Germans do see the word heimat very differently now." Reitz stripped the term of its fascist overtones and restored its original meaning - an atavistic sense of origin, aching with Germanic melancholy. "It's always associated with something that's been lost, that's in the past," he says.

Reitz's depiction of his own heimat in the film is passionate, but it's not at all sentimental. The scenery is stunning, but the lifestyle he depicts is claustrophobic rather than quaint. "Be glad you live in a big city," Hermann's small-town lover tells him. "No one watches you there." Schabbach, where Heimat is set, is actually an amalgam of several villages - but although it's an invented place, the life it represents is real enough. "Everyone knows everyone else by his first name," says Reitz. "If you know someone by his first name, you tend to take much more responsibility for that person than if you don't know his name at all. That's the positive side of it - that everyone knows everyone, and you can feel a kind of responsibility for these people. On the other hand, you also feel controlled and manipulated. That's the negative side." Characters who remain here are nurtured yet stifled - characters who leave are liberated but bereft. "It's very ambivalent," says Reitz. "A small town brings with it good things and bad things, and they're totally interconnected." The big city is liberal but anonymous. The small town is caring but conservative. Those who stay dream of leaving; those who leave yearn to return.

With its workaday cast and regional dialects, Reitz's hopes for Heimat were modest. "There were no stars. No one expected it would take off the way it did." Yet its premiere in Munich was a sensation. "From that day on, everything was different." Heimat was a hit at the Venice Film Festival, and on German TV. Viewers even wrote to Reitz with their own family histories. "Hundreds of people wrote hundreds of pages," he says.

Reitz has two explanations for Heimat's extraordinary success. "In the movies and on television, you always see shows about the big people," he says. "It was never shown how normal people could be valuable." Yet there's more to it than that. Heimat liberated memories that had been repressed for half a century. "In German society, there is an awful lot of guilt," he adds. "People don't talk about the 20th century, and what happened in those years." I know what he means. My grandmother never talked to me about what Germans call the Hitlerzeit. I wish she had. It might have done us both some good.

Heimat was lauded throughout Europe, and also in America. The Chicago Tribune called it the movie experience of a lifetime. Stanley Kubrick was a fan. In Britain, critics queued up to praise it. Lynne Truss, author of Eats Shoots and Leaves, says her only regret was that she found it impossible to do the ironing while watching it, since the subtitles kept her eyes glued to the screen. Heimat disproved Alfred Hitchcock's dictum that the length of a movie should match the endurance of the human bladder. "You cannot say that it is too long," argued The Guardian, echoing the sentiments of fans on several continents. "Actually, it is too short."

You'd be hard-pushed to say the same of Reitz's Second Heimat. At 25 hours and 32 minutes, it was one of the longest movies ever made. The premiere was spread over five days. When it was screened at the London Film Festival, over two weekends in 1992, spectators were given special cushions. Anyone who sat through the entire film was allowed to keep their cushion. Who said Germans had no sense of humour? Certainly not Edgar Reitz. Seen in a single sitting, The Second Heimat would give anyone a sore backside, but divided into 13 episodes, as it was on TV and video, its hypnotic power dwarfs its mammoth length. Reitz's movie-making has been called novelistic, but it actually feels closer to earlier oral traditions. "Other rules apply to this kind of storytelling," he says. Reitz shot his daytime scenes in black-and-white and his nocturnal scenes in colour, reinforcing the film's dreamlike ambience. As Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote in The Chicago Reader, "one could climb inside this movie and stay a long, long while."

Reitz's third and final series is shorter than his first or second Heimats, though by anybody else's yardstick it's still an epic, with almost 100 speaking parts. The film begins on 9 November 1989, the night the Berlin Wall came down, and ends on New Year's Day, 2000. This hectic decade is squeezed into six episodes, comprising over 11 hours of film, and like the first and second Heimats, it depicts the intimate repercussions of momentous events. As the Cold War ends, 20,000 American soldiers who've been here since 1945 depart, and their empty barracks are filled by 20,000 ethnic Germans from the former Soviet Union, transported to Siberia by Stalin and now returning to a heimat only their ancestors could call home. With their return, the wheel of German history turns full circle, and Reitz concludes his film cycle with the question he has asked throughout - in our brave new global village, is there anywhere we can call home? "In Heimat Three we had to analyse what this word heimat means today," says Reitz. "We're trying to reach back to it and find it again, and that's probably why it's so important."

The day after I met Reitz, I travelled to the Hunsrück in search of his heimat. It's an enigmatic part of Germany, tucked away on the south-western edge of the country, and, like Reitz's films, its atmosphere shifts abruptly with the weather. When the sun shines, it's idyllic. When the skies darken, it's oppressive. I recall Reitz's final words to me: "I was only free after I left." Its boundaries are four rivers (the Rhine, Moselle, Saar and Nahe) and it feels like an island, isolated from the outside world. Its rolling hills are densely wooded. There are no big cities and only a few large towns. Like Hardy's Wessex, the landscape has a brooding, elemental beauty. It's a place you could fall in love with. It's a place that might drive you mad.

I drove around the Hunsrück with the actress Eva-Maria Schneider, who plays one of Heimat's regulars. She was born here in 1940. She's always lived here. She's Heimat personified. "Heimat brings you back to your roots," she says, as we drive through this moody, seductive countryside. "Perhaps it is the same in other countries. People there are also searching for their roots."

Like the character she plays in the film, Eva-Maria has seen television usurp the stories people used to tell each other. But if TV is to oust those old tales, let it at least be indigenous television, telling stories about life as it is really lived. "Heimat shows you another aspect of German history," she says. "A village in England or Italy is pretty much the same as a village in Germany. They only speak another language, that's all." Germans, like Britons, are tired of seeing their history told from a Hollywood perspective. Heimat's working title was Made in Germany. It's still a fitting subtitle for Reitz's film. "We've seen a lot of American films on TV and not many films made by Germans," says Eva-Maria. "It's good to see it from a German point of view."

Throughout my childhood, I was starved of such a viewpoint. My German ancestry was a virtual secret, and my British upbringing taught me that it was something of which I should be thoroughly ashamed. I didn't visit Germany until I was 18, and though I've been back there countless times since then, I've never found my heimat, not like the one that Reitz portrays. I found my grandfather's schloss on the Baltic coast and my grandmother's villa in Hamburg. I found the flat in Dresden where my father was born, a few years before that city was reduced to rubble by the RAF. Yet none of these places felt like home to me, and I always presumed this was because, like the ethnic Germans in Heimat, returning from Siberia to the Hunsrück, my heimat was a quirk of history rather than something I'd experienced first-hand.

Yet now I wonder whether my sense of homelessness isn't far more commonplace - not just a consequence of my dislocated German origins, but a general 21st-century malaise. The traumas of the past century have left the Germans uniquely rootless, but plenty of British people feel similarly uprooted, and that's why Reitz's film resonates far beyond its own locale.

"Our lives today go in a different direction," says Reitz. "We can live anywhere. We can move anywhere. We can talk with anyone in the world." Yet as life becomes more uniform - the same brand names, the same TV shows - the unique becomes ubiquitous, and the idea of heimat our parents and grandparents had is dying out. That's why Reitz's film is important. It depicts a way of life based upon a particular sense of place which, in just two generations, has virtually become extinct. "Things have changed," says Reitz. "We tend not to live where we were born or where we grew up." Heimat, more than anything, means dying in the house where you were born - an increasing rarity nowadays, not only in Germany.

Future generations will find Reitz's Heimat equally intriguing, but it will intrigue them as history, rather than modern art. For our children, and their children, weaned in the virtual nursery of the internet, Heimat will be absorbing but remote - as distant from their lives as the Victorian novels it resembles. In Britain as in Germany, our love of homeland is fading. We may be the last generation with any idea of what it really means.

Yet Heimat has left one lasting legacy for English-speaking audiences, and that's the new word it's given to the English language. Thanks to Reitz, heimat now has an English meaning that transcends his meisterwerk. Like weltschmerz or schadenfreude, it's become one of those German words we reach for when trying to define a feeling that English words fail to describe. Edgar Reitz reclaimed Germany's idea of heimat from the Nazis. And in doing so, he reclaimed our idea of Germany from the Nazis, too.

'Heimat' is released on DVD by Tartan Video on 25 October, priced £99.99. 'Heimat Three' is released in German cinemas on 30 September. William Cook travelled to Germany courtesy of Lufthansa (0870 837 7747/www.lufthansa.com). German National Tourist Office (020 7317 0908/ www.germany-tourism.de)

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