Edgar Reitz   03.07.97

A panel discussion with the director Edgar Reitz during the conference on [the concept of] Heimat, Ortlosigkeit and new cinema.

I'm beginning to suspect that as soon as you start talking about a phenomenon that interests you, it starts to disappear. Using the concept of Heimat as a theme in your films and their success could be an indication that Heimat exists less and less. Talking about one's homeland is often accompanied by feelings of melancholy. In the global information society, which no longer permanently anchored in any particular place and encourages mobility, this loss could be exacerbated. Telecommunications reach into one's homeland, into towns, link them to the world and ruin their uniqueness for the inhabitants.

  Edgar Reitz: Here we're talking about things that have been around for longer than we think. We should stop believing that everything a computer can do is new. Since the 60s I've created a portrait of this century, quite by chance. In Heimat it's always being shown what an incredible impression the radio made on people at the beginning of the 20s, how shortly afterwards the telephone made its triumphant entrance and created new ways of interacting with each other, just as in the 30s new streets and motorways were built. Now the villagers were meeting people who came from far away. There was a new kind of daily life emerging which no one could have imagined for centuries previously. Finally, the Second World War arrives for the villagers. Even the murderous war becomes a part of this new world experience. As the war comes to an end, one admires the victors, the Americans, with their new life-style, the Peter Stuyvesant style of the "big wide world". They are no longer those kind of victors, like the plundering Soldateska of old attacking villages, or during the 30-year-war. No, these victors bring democracy and open our eyes to a beautifully perfumed new world. For Germans, as well as for many other Europeans, the end of the Second World War was their first experience of global life.

But is [the concept of] Heimat now finished? Doesn't it exist any more? Has [the concept of] Heimat disappeared as the centre of our world, like it used to be in every village? Perhaps [the concept of] classic film is also finished with which you took up the subject of Heimat?

  Edgar Reitz: There are feelings which are obviously finished now. I think that when we talk about 'tiredness', we should also talk about what lose. This is not only a time when we are treading on new ground, reaching a new stage in development with the help of digitalisation which will make us better survivors, more flexible and perhaps more democratic, as some net-heads claim. There's also something in our human nature that resists permanent [development] acceleration. I'd like to mention a few things that can't be accelerated. You can't accelerate the growth of a child. You can't accelerate the creation of a work of art. You can't accelerate convalescence or becoming ill. You can't accelerate the maturing of a good wine. There are just these things that make our lives richer and which I'd like to call European qualities, that cannot be accelerated. They stand against the spirit of the age and its belief in progress and an ever increasing rate of evolution. Art in the twentieth century has also repeatedly attempted such explanations. The entire avant garde movement is characterised by this enthusiasm for acceleration. But it has also repeatedly lead to dead ends. One has triumphed oneself to death. One has understood the world better and better and lost it at the same time. A new mourning results from the loss of those qualities which are included in the term Heimat. One's homeland is no fixed possession, about which one could say "here I take responsibility, here am I and here I have vested titles". Homeland also always defines something lost and, in losing it, the feeling for it. The feeling for the loss of things is sometimes stronger and more intensive than for the things themselves. Everybody knows deep down that they are mortal, that each instant of their lives is fleeting. In addition, each of these instants contains the message that there is nothing more valuable than life itself and that one must guard and protect it. I need to keep these little certifications of life, how we can represent it, keep it, in film through sensitive observation. But at the same time I realise the fact that the world does not stand still, that there is development and that the people I lovingly describe live in a changing world. They take part in more and more complicated and far-reaching communications systems, that are becoming a major part of history. In the digital age, everything seems able to be reproduced and multiplied. The replica becomes equivalent to the original. We're cloning consumer durables, works of art, yes, even plants and animals. At the same time however, people are becoming more and more individualised. The individual, the indivisibility, the specialness in each of us, that which dies with us is becoming more emphasised and made into the principle of life. As a person we are unrepeatable. No one can be multiplied. As individuals we're not actually communicable. A mysterious part always remains. Man as person is not digitizable.

I want to speak a bit more about your film practice. You were somewhat daring in your Heimat undertaking. It was really a long farewell lasting through many hours of film. Where did you actually get the courage to believe that people today would still sit through such a long story?

  Edgar Reitz: These films that go completely against the grain in that they subvert every single TV and cinema programme have, nevertheless, gone around the whole world. I can see that people everywhere who lack that feeling of lingering in their lives, which is evoked in the film. In a world of acceleration, of ever-increasing diversity, of ever multiplying sensations and images, they are looking for this lingering quality. The viewers consider the thought, where am I, which path is my life following compared to the people depicted here. Making this kind of film has a lot to do with musicality, with rhythm. There are various rhythms of life that film orients itself by. There is the rhythm of progress but there's also the biological rhythm which isn't mutable through technology. The person driving a car or working a computer is still a biological entity, carrying imprints from entire periods of evolution. He may be able to learn how to deal with these new speeds but an inseparable 'age old' memory remains in him that becomes more and more clearly noticeable and demands more and more attention. The Heimat cycle addresses this in people.

  You showed in Heimat that the broadcast media, the telephone or cinema invades people's worlds. If, in your new film "Die Erben" [Heirlooms], you now want to film the last hundred days of this century, will you still be doing it in the medium of the classic talking picture or will you be using the new methods of creating and producing, to make [your film] rather than only showing it? Are you going to be integrating performing artists who expand the palette of special effects or are you going to try to depict the end of the century through the classic medium of the talking picture? And if so, wouldn't that be paradoxical?

  Edgar Reitz: One has to make clear that the spoken and, more so, the audio-visual expression of our feelings is difficult. It isn't as if millions of people are in the position of being able to really express themselves in internet forums. Anyway the smallest number of people is in the position of being able to express themselves through language let alone through pictures. Filmmaking has a century of history behind it. A hundred years isn't a lot for an artform though. If I were a composer then I'd be practising some piece of handiwork four thousand years old and I'd be able to benefit from the assuredness of the expression. With filmmaking everything's quite new. In the hundred years of film there have still been works that have set world standards and have shown what fantastic possibilities of expression can be achieved through this medium. Everybody who makes films is confronted by these standards and at the same time has the task of further developing the medium. Today no one can just take a camera in their hand and start filming, thinking they've already said something. Whoever just uses the techniques will soon realise that they've expressed themselves using the cheapest of clichŽs that say nothing about themselves or the world. The idea that millions of people can communicate themselves audiovisually on the internet is nonsensical because they can't even express what they're feeling at that moment in images or words. In internet forums, where people have mostly expressed themselves in written form, there are only a few who are capable of expressing themselves in words. Many aren't even grammatically correct. A specific internet jargon has evolved and often there's only a helpless stammering taking place on screen. The same context that we need for the classic forms of expression is missing here. Everyone who learns to use the classic rules of expression benefits from them and everyone who learns the classic forms of expression in film steps onto a new horizon. They ask, are you still using the classic forms? I answer, yes, but I'd like to develop them further. What I inherit from film history is often still not enough. I'm still wanting to make the classic style of films, with cameras, actors, and the hundred years of history behind me, as a gift from the outgoing century to the coming one.

Perhaps that's just a European requirement. European cinema is no longer successful worldwide. Hollywood is more and more powerful and makes more and more use of techniques. Many popular Hollywood films don't amount to much more than a series of special effects, packed into usually quite simple stories with flat, superficial characters. Can one still fight this trend with old European traditions?

  Edgar Reitz: I've always stood up for the individual form, for the language of film and a production model that can still be ruled by individual powers. That is of course a European ideal. We in Europe invented the ideal of individuality. That the individual has a right to take part, in their own, unmistakable way, in society's processes and above all to bring to expression that which only they can, is a requirement that lies deep within us Europeans. The American manner of production, however, suppresses these needs. It has, rather, been arranged hierarchically. It depicts the pyramid of money. Only where the incredible means that we need to achieve validity in world markets are, where banks, studio companies, large-scale producers with their many millions can realise their ideas of success, is a film made. Thus the personal view of life of those who make the film becomes secondary. The actors, the stars, get more and more depersonalised. The figure that Schwarzenegger plays in Terminator is almost an action figure and hardly human any longer. In the next stage the main actors will be computer generated and the star will be made into that which he was always supposed to be, a branded product, never without end, as long as you still need people for it. Progress is moving towards that direction because such productions let themselves be governed and marketed by these companies. In individual creations there's always a bit of unpredictability and resistance. That piece of unpredictability is the actual cultural core in my view. Only through that can occasional art film come about, even in America. If we make the American way of production into the new standard, we will risk the remainder of our importance as an independent film industry.

Film has actually always been a shared labour production form. You can't make a film by yourself

  Edgar Reitz: On this point too, film is related to music, which is just as collective an art form.

Computer technology could, however, enable individuals or small groups to make films with a relatively small amount of effort, independently, and maybe even to distribute them over the internet. Isn't that, too, Utopia?

  Edgar Reitz: I think, one day these lonely geniuses will start to appear all over the world, sitting in their attics making powerful films with computers. But I suppose that we'd be dealing with quite a strange sort of film, where there aren't any actors and without any images of the outside world happening.

But for you that's nothing positive?

  Edgar Reitz: Well, the means available for making pure computer animation are still too rough for me. Digitalisation has however led to being able to work with images in a very detailed way in post production. When I was shooting scenes a few years ago, set in the twenties or during the Second World War, the crew still had to dismantle dozens of TV aerials on rooftops or tow away parked cars, at great expense. Now all this can be solved with digital reworking. Inappropriate parts of images are retouched and replaced with new ones. Today we're in the position of being able to modify or exchange people and objects at will. The contemporary and the past, the documentary and the fictional let themselves be combined at will and fashioned into new poetic truths. It is an enormous benefit for the art of film, being able to interfere with the moving image in the same way that literature does with sentences or painting with colours.

There is a parallel between one's homeland and the cinema. The cinema, as a venue, is a particular space many people have to come to in order to see a film. For us, the cinema is still associated with an architectural building and a screen, which we look at together, and watch a film on. Cinemas are doing better at the moment. People are flooding into cinemas but the development of storage media, games consoles and networks will quite possibly continue in the long term, so that it will no longer be necessary to go to the cinema to see a film in good quality when there is nothing more than just a film there. Which venue is your new film designed for? The cinema, a new cinema, TV?

  Edgar Reitz: I cannot imagine that people today or in the future will just want to stay at home. I cannot imagine either, that in the future the whole of humanity will only be staring at a screen. I cannot imagine that our drive towards finding one another, getting in touch, means holding a mouse in the one hand with the screen in front of your nose. The drive towards social experience is not satisfied sensually by electronic networks. The ears that hear, the eyes that see, the hand that controls the mouse all originally had other purposes and other desires. That is why the cinema will live. It is because you can have everything at home that people will go to the cinema. We leave our own four walls because there's a drive within us that makes us want to be there. It's a source of energy for the human soul to experience something that reminds us of our own fears or joys with others. Everyone who concerns themselves with the drama of cinema knows that there is a huge difference between laughing and crying together or by oneself. People who cry together cry - is sort of what I'm saying - at a higher level. Within the communion of the darkened room tears adopt a certain pathos. It's a mystical force that makes people cry together. Laughing together, on the other hand, is much more communicative and intelligent than laughing alone. Alone, you smirk rather than laugh. Laughing alone is no release. It is not as satisfying and can sometimes even be crude. Many a human expression finds its true form in communion. In the cinema, film takes part in an evolution of instincts that go their own unique but also hidden way within this society. I am constantly amazed how unconsciously most developments in communication systems and the public media happen. Man is a living creature that has two opposing natures. We are cavedwellers, looking for solitude. But we are also herd animals, looking for open communities. Social instincts are currently undergoing an odd development. When we're seeing cinema being suddenly revived, when we see that even in Berlin nearly twenty multiplexes are being built and that in one town more than fifty thousand cinema seats are being created, then that's a clear indication of changes in the rhythm of life. There has not been anything like this since the thirties.

With the classic canvases?

  Edgar Reitz: Yes with the classic canvases and with very pleasing architectural concepts for audience halls and the comforts surrounding them. It's become very important that the exits don't go out onto the street but back into the building. After the film the audience ends up back where they started. Whoever sees a film wants to return to the society of those who attracted him to the event. That doesn't mean that people want to discuss [it]. They don't want to intellectualise what they experience. They just want to be together and discover if others like what they like and find a new home in this almost wordless community. For me, I've lost every home; cinema has become my home, or at least a Utopia of it.

Now that sounds rather as though everything is going to stay more or less as it has been so far. Cinema is coming to life. There is a public space there, a community even, even if it isĘsilent. Of course, people are finding new public spaces and communities in networks as well. Entirely new forms of communication and interaction are being constructed within them. You can't really start with the image of everyone sitting by themselves in front of their computer. Cyberspace is a large, open world, too.

  Edgar Reitz: I'd like to add to that by relating a little story. I often surf on the internet, too. Recently, I find a call for help in a forum from an American called Christine. She reports that she has found a man in an internet chatroom, who she has wonderful telephone sex with, so she says. Then the wish to meet each other 'offline' too comes along, just as Grandmother met Granddad before. However, Christine is so terribly scared of this that she turns to the internet again and calls for help. Who has had, she calls out on the world wide web, experience with an 'offline meeting'? I think that is typical. It's a great story that demonstrates exactly what gets lost.

Back once again. A lot of multiplexes are being built, but in principle, the screen, the projection, the film remains the same. If, however, using home media, you go deeper into your own personal cave but on the other hand have the greater need to leave that cave and go out into the public, wouldn't the cinema as a space also have to change? The silent staring at the screen, and the popcorn stand outside, that isn't any kind of alternative, is it? We can foresee that the proliferation of multiplexes will come to an end relatively quickly, that cinema is a niche after all. In Hollywood films much use is made of special effects, but storytelling in film and the film's reception remain the same, leaving aside the parallel production of computer games. But computers do make possible other forms of filmmaking and recipe making. If I may mention Die Erben [Heirlooms] again, could I ask you how you are going to reflect these developments in that?

  Edgar Reitz: There's a lot heading towards us and I'm glad, too, that the new media offer us a great wealth of new possibilities. This won't stop when it comes to cinema, either. That's why I founded an institute in Karlsruhe two years ago, to deal with the future of cinema. Soon, film will no longer come in front of a celluloid strip, but will be transferred digitally in very high quality. The machines you use to project large images no longer need projection rooms. They don't need to be centrally placed in the rooms. In the future we will be able to have as many projectors in the rooms as we like. The rooms will be less and less theatrelike. They won't be so rigidly arranged like peep-shows, but we will be able to stage fantastic shows with freely projected images in the room. We will also narrate simultaneously. Stories that, like life, branch into all possible areas will be portrayed in film. The audience will get mobile in a completely new way and also experience new freedoms architecturally. There will be new rules on how one gets closer to the images. In fact this is all not that new. Even the mystery plays in mediaeval cities were simultaneous theatre. There were several stages the actors played scenes from biblical history on, and the audience wandered around, taking part in this or that story, putting their own version of the story together in their heads. It's something like that that the interactive stories that computer games are giving us today will offer, on a grand scale as well as in a collective public form. In my continuing film work I'd like to cautiously try to include such aesthetic concepts. In saying that, I am aware that we are much quicker in our heads than in reality. There are philosophies and concepts around today that are 30, 40 or 50 years ahead of actual technical development. It isn't any use if I can only put out a film that costs millions in 50 years' time. I have to keep to the possibilities available. I think it's interesting, today, to work across the media, for example to tell stories that start in a cinema, continue on television, go on on the internet and finally come to an end in the cinema. Like that, the whole thing could be integrated into the cultural life of a town in a completely new way. There's a lot that can be done today. In the future, the filmmaker will be a performance dramatist, an artist, not just shaping his filmstrips. The new audio-visual product for cinema will be more than just a box of film spools in the future, instead it will be a performance that seizes a whole building or even a whole country. I also believe in a cinema where people will applaud again. Whoever goes out wants to applaud, because by doing so you show each other that you're there and that you belong to those who are enjoying the show. The success that you take part in personally and bodily is expressed through clapping.

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