Heimat 2 is a beautifully conceived and created film series, a 26 hour dash through the Sixties, each of thirteen episodes focusing on one individual from a loose grouping of young intellectuals – musicians, film-makers, philosophers – who have arrived in Munich to study and to search for, as in the German title, ‘Die Zweite Heimat’, a second homeland, a generation trying to find or found a new country of art and watershed politics. The original Heimat (1984) chronicled the twentieth century through the lens of a small village, Schabbach, in the Hunsrück, and one of its characters was Hermann, a precocious young man whose love affair with the immigrant Klärchen ends when she is shunned by the community; he left at the end of episode 9. Heimat 2 begins with that leaving, as Hermann swears never to return and never to fall in love again, but it isn’t necessary to have seen the first Heimat as we immediately enter a new world, that of Munich, a city which serves as a petri dish for the currents and moods of the decade, as characters become politicised, as ambitions flounder, ideas take flight. Heimat 2 is a celebration and critique of a generation.

Heimat sits in a genre of its own: the gigantic film series. It belongs to a world in which Neighbours might be a tremendously ambitious epic about white settlers, the foundering of a sunshine republic, Australian happiness and guilt tinged with urban disaffection, or Eastenders an exorcism of London’s psycho-geography through the aperture of a Zolaesque critique of society powerfully directed through a particular community and its economic survival. Heimat 2 is like these soap operas in that its structure is cellular. In this it avoids the fatal grandeur of epic flow. Each scene is simultaneously a self-contained drama and one which links to a particular thread, to the overall construction, and to the different scenes before and after. The same is true of each episode. Where it differs from the convention of TV drama is that there are no addictive story threads – these would appear a crude and limited device in this setting. Characters recur, and as each year clocks by, they change, but we simply register this in details. The dialogue is never formulaic but always alive with convincing speech patterns which are somehow distilled, a quality of dramatic writing so effective that I often paused after a scene to let its impact sink in.

As the character who ties the series together, Hermann is by turns sympathetic, self-centred, unsentimental, obviously talented, overly distant. We are never invited to identify with him or with any other character, they are all too human in their own right, not ciphers for us to boo and hiss. Each episode strikes a new tone, as we see the city and the other characters through the life of a different individual, and people – such as Alex, a philosopher at the centre of episode 6, Kennedy’s Children – who appear entirely absurd or else slightly cryptic in other episodes, suddenly snap into focus in their own episode. Because of this remarkable quality, Heimat 2 is constantly acquiring depth, rather than a skimming narrative drive. Happily, the ensemble cast is uniformly excellent, inhabiting their complex roles, never grandstanding or appearing to grudge an episode where their characters may be sidelined.

Two other elements of the production also contribute to this unique experience. The photography of Gernot Roll, Gerard Vanderburg and, predominantly, Christian Reitz, makes a series of switches – from black and white to colour; from monumental, fluid shots and perfect compositions to steadicam and witty reveals – which roughen the texture and keep us interested in the surface of this enormous work, a surface which is always worth paying attention to. The colour/black and white switches are a constant delight, the first one as Hermann arrives in Munich and a red signal goes out to grey. Elsewhere, a car goes past, or the camera tracks past a tree, or the screen is filled with a white screen – in a cinema – and we don’t realise we’ve made the switch until a yellow shirt appears. Each change – several an episode – means that we blink and see the film anew. No heavy dramatic significance is attached to these switches – other than that they often mark the edges of daylight and darkness – a relief from directors who use such a device as inverted commas around a dream or a particular viewpoint.

The series is also washed through with music – as on a conventional soundtrack, where the music’s creation is ‘hidden’ atmosphere to the on-screen action, but best of all in the many live performances which tend to spill over into following scenes – Hermann is a music student, after all – and I can’t think of another film which, rather than representing musical creation, or using music to create emotional pitch, effectively and simply allows music to erupt, to permeate, to be a presence by turns joyful and problematic. There are impromptu sessions which burst out of nowhere, such as percussion on cutlery and plates in the music college’s refectory, and there are concerts and songs and improvisation. Heimat 2 gives us the music of a decade even if it wobbles on the politics: the first eight episodes strike me as virtually flawless, but then there is a loss of coherence with episode nine, as the group of friends and the house, ‘Foxholes’, where they have hung out, fall apart; it is not the disintegration which is the artistic problem, but the fact that time speeds up as the final years of the decade speed past. Another failure is in the dream and overtly fantastical ‘mood’ sequences, which either come over as sub-Tarkovsky (rain falling from the ceiling) or as insulting to the audience’s appreciation of filmic reality because the fantastic elements are rare and therefore come across as aberrations. Reitz would overcome these flaws and master the technique of ambiguous reality, of expressionistic cinema in Heimat 3, in which film itself becomes a kind of heimat, an ultimate homeland.

I’ve just begun watching Heimat 2 for a second time; it’s compelling in its generous, brimming-over nature, like an enormous mansion one is free to wander through. I would think it approaches inexhaustibility and is certainly one of the finest things created for TV, its closest artistic companion perhaps Zola’s Rougon-Macquart, a sequence of twenty disparate novels conceived as scientific observation of environment and inheritance. The DVD transfer is 1:33:1, as one expects as this was made in pre-widescreen 1992, and the picture is crisp in black and white, ever so slightly soft in colour. The only extra, apart from the lavish presentation box, is an introductory booklet written by David Parkinson, which was not part of the review package.