JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Goodbye, Germany, perhaps the most prominent of the emigration shows.

 

 

 

 

The Vaassen family moved to the Cape Town area four years ago.

Rainer, a former farmer, would like to expand their B&B.

Detlef Reimer is a truck driver with a dream.

Detlef Reimer longs to leave gray Germany behind ...

... change directions toward sunny Spain ...

... with his wife Beatrix and youngest son Niklas.

Brad Creek near Calgary.

Where Regine Janssen watches out for bears and was promised a job at the “Bavarian Inn” . . .

. . . until manager Charley Hohlschuh fired her.

Regine is back at the Bavarian Inn as supervisor, her husband Reimund is a chef.

 

Goodbye Germany: emigration, reality TV and Schadenfreude

by Mattias Frey

The most remarkable development in recent German television is the proliferation of “emigration shows.” Since 2006, a host of docusoaps has followed Germans planning to emigrate and chronicled their experiences in the destination countries. For the purposes of this article, I will focus on Goodbye Deutschland – Die Auswanderer (Goodbye Germany – The Emigrants, VOX), perhaps the most prominent of the programs. Each episode of Goodbye Germany introduces in parallel three or four German pairs or families who are about to leave the country. (Sometimes, the show depicts a family that emigrated years before.)

“Breathtaking expanses and fascinating light” attract Germans to South Africa . . . . . . not to mention “friendly people.”

The first scenes reveal the subjects’ destinations, their reasons behind their planned emigration, their expectations for their new home and of what they will miss from Germany. The subjects pack their belongings, celebrate going-away parties and take tearful leave from friends and relatives, usually at the airport. The next scenes usually convey the first night in the destination country and the first few weeks of accommodation and/or job hunting, exploring the new surroundings, shopping for amenities and the first days of work or school. The narrative is propelled by an ironic voice-over narrator and punctuated by the subjects’ problems with the local bureaucracy, language inadequacies, homesickness, difficulty in acquiring employment or disillusionment with promised work (i.e., too much work, too little money), intra-familial strife and general disappointment with the new “culture” (e.g., too hot, too cold, homes not up to German standards, people too unfriendly). These misfortunes often climax with a subject bursting into tears. In memorable stories, the subjects end up failing miserably and returning home to Germany.

Goodbye Germany and its counterparts alternate between entertaining a utopian version of emigration and dramatizing its very failure, a pattern that allows us to deliberate on the broader narratological and emotional underpinnings of “reality TV” and meditate on why we love to see others fail. Moreover, this article contextualizes the programs against current German popular discourses of “brain drain” and “national exodus.” Attending to the shows’ representational and dramaturgical strategies, I examine how the genre both responds to and constitutes new post-wall conceptions of German identity.

Animated maps graphically depict . . . . . . the geographical movements of the emigrants.

To achieve a clearer picture of the format’s formal designs and in particular the importance of the voice-over, let us take the example of the Goodbye Germany episode broadcast on 5 February 2008 (season three, episode five). The program begins with the Vaassen family in South Africa, “a country,” the female voice-over narrator tells us over panoramas of mountains and shorelines, “with breathtaking expanses and fascinating light.” These features—and the “friendly people”—led the Vaassen family to say goodbye to their native Germany four years ago, emigrating to the Cape Town area six months after their first holidays to the nation. Wife Birgit and husband Rainer explain that they moved in order to be able to spend more time with their kids, Christian (10) and Elisa (7). The children seem to remember little about their homeland. They prefer South Africa, according to Christian in close-up with his sister on the beach, because “in Germany there’s no mountains or sea.” “Oh really?” the narrator interjects.

Birgit Vaassen wanted to spend more time with her children . . . . . . Christian and Elisa, who remember little about Germany.
Rainer and Birgit face stiff competition from other B&Bs. Birgit checks out the rivals . . . . . . which are often bigger and have pools or ocean views.

The Vaassens arrived in Somerset West after an 8000 km. journey from Merzenich, a suburb of Cologne, where Birgit had been in the fashion business; Rainer was a farmer. In South Africa the pair runs a B&B and Birgit supplements the family’s income with a position as saleswoman for a local granite company. Over shots of the family establishment, the narrator wonders if the family hasn’t succumbed to unrealistic ambitions: after all, “the couple are not trained hotel managers, but hope for the best.” Indeed, Birgit and Rainer have conflicting plans for their business and argue on camera about the interior design. Rainer wants to expand; Birgit wonders how they could cope. She often stays up with the guests until 2 a.m. and then must begin her second job at 6 a.m. According to the narrator, the B&B suffers from competition from all sides. In her car, Birgit surveys the many other area accommodations, which often have large pools and gardens. Life in South Africa, the narrator summarizes, “is not so simple,” before the program moves to a new segment in Dortmund, where the truck driver Detlef Reimer dreams about moving to Spain.

Detlef Reimer, his wife Beatrix and their 10 year-old son Niklas plan to emigrate from Dortmund to Cambrils, a suburb of Barcelona. Detlef feels that life is too stressful in Germany and his wife and son hope for warm weather and a swimming pool. In a scene in Niklas’ bedroom, his six year-old nephew Lukas asks him whether it is warm in Spain. “It’s 30 degrees C everyday,” Niklas says. Looking to someone off-screen, presumably for a cue, Lukas asks his young uncle whether he will have a “giant swimming pool.” Niklas replies: “Not a giant one, but…” This initial sequence ends with a pan over the Reimer’s neighborhood of purpose-built apartment buildings on a cloudy day. The voice-over intones, “The Reimer family wants to trade their high-rise apartment block for a house with pool under the Spanish sun. There it can only get better, they say … Can’t it?”

Since Niklas is teased for his lack of athletic prowess, that gives the Reimers another reason to go. Nephew Lukas: “How warm is it in Spain?”
Setting up Schadenfreude: “30 degrees C everyday,” Niklas replies. Looking to the producers for his cue, six year-old Lukas unwittingly anticipates later disappointments.

Before we see the Reimers embark for Spain, there follows a sequence with another family, the Janssens. Ten months ago the family from Hagen moved to Brad Creek, a rural town by Calgary. Forty-six year-old Regine Janssen explains how one is to behave in order to avoid bears and deer. “First it looked so good for the Janssens,” the narrator explains. The pair had the opportunity to work at the Bavarian Inn, a German restaurant in the area: Reimund as chef and Regine as service manager. Unfortunately, Regine was fired by the (also German) manager Charley Hohlschuh, under mysterious circumstances that he vaguely tries to justify in interview. Regine has now been rehired, but she complains that she has to do cleaning in the restaurant.

The episode returns to the Vaassens, where Birgit is again surveying the neighborhood. The “competition is enormous,” the male voice-over explains. The area is full of Germans with who have the same business idea. Indeed, the program shifts focus to another German family in Somerset West. This couple, Frank Kühne and his wife Karin, came from Augsburg to realize the same dream as the Vaassens and bought a property in the area for 700,000 euros to run a B&B; the family was featured across several episodes since Goodbye Germany’s first season. Their dream, explains Karin with tears in her eyes, has turned into a “nightmare”; the Kühnes are selling up in order to return to Germany.

The episode cuts back to the Reimers. They are searching the internet for accommodation in Spain. The voice-over informs the viewer that the family has signed a three-year lease on a row house before asking, “Was that perhaps a bit hasty?” After a tearful goodbye party with family and friends, the Reimers set off by car. Once they cross the border to Spain, Detlef stops at a gas station:

“I’ve arrived home. Every time that I have driven here with my truck I’ve had the feeling that this is my true homeland.”

As the Reimers approach their new neighborhood in Cambrils, the female voice-over provides general geographical information. “Cambrils is located in Catalonia, an autonomous region in northeastern Spain.” The female narrator adds another select fact: “In winter, the temperatures range from 8 to 13 degrees C.” The family arrives at their property and inspects the house and grounds. As the segment continues, there is an increasing sense of disappointment, prompted by the narrator, who repeats and elaborates on her earlier comments:

“The Reimers signed a contract for three years. Wasn’t that a bit hasty? Was this the Spanish coziness that the Reimers expected? From home, the photos on the internet looked so promising.”

The off-screen voice suggests that the family will have trouble paying the expensive rent. The property is actually smaller than their flat in Dortmund; in Spain, the Reimers did not realize, real estate advertisements include the terrace and garden in their calculation of total square meters. Beatrix surveys the back garden and says she wishes to learn the national language and meet the neighbors. The voice-over narrator dampens any hope:

“What she doesn’t yet know is that it will prove difficult to make acquaintances: the neighborhood is made up largely of holiday homes only inhabited in the summer.”

Detlef’s older children will stay behind in Dortmund . . . . . . and take over the old apartment.
Daughter Sarah takes her parents’ plans especially hard. Detlef’s motto: “If life’s shit, then at least live in the sun.”

When the movers come from Germany, the Reimers are at least happy to unpack and make their new home more cozy. Nevertheless, as the male narrator explains, “Everything is going wrong.” The first night was “freezing” in the words of Beatrix Reimer; the idea of a warm Spain with balmy days and swimming pools—after all, one of the major reasons for coming—has given way to Detlef lighting newspapers ablaze in the fireplace. Spanish houses, unlike Dortmund flats, do not have central heating. The portable space heaters with which the property was outfitted caused the electricity to fail, the visibly exhausted mother reports in interview. Over images of Detlef stoking a sorry fire, the male narrator intones:

“In Spain, nighttime winter temperatures typically range between 5 and 8 degrees C…not exactly conducive to a vacation feeling.”

Undeterred by a disappointing night, the family heads to the waterfront. However, here too they are disillusioned: “The beach turns out to be nothing but a harbor for yachts: disappointing.” As the family peers, visibly insecure, toward the sea, the future for the Reimers does not look bright. The narrator sums up the family’s precarious situation in the episode’s final shot,

“In three weeks Detlef’s holidays are over and he must go back on the road with his truck. Beatrix and Niklas only know a few words of Spanish, let alone Catalan, the region’s other official language. Any personal contacts to their surroundings should prove difficult….Good that the Reimers don’t know now how many problems will come their way. ”

The basic function of the voice-over in non-fiction television programs including wildlife programs, cooking shows and reality TV is to

“establish a link between the audience and the programme narrative, by inviting the viewer to involve himself or herself in the ongoing progress of the story” (Bignell 2004: 100).

The heterodiegetic voice-over in Goodbye Germany conforms initially to this general purpose. Alternating between a male and a female speaker between stories, the narrator typically begins segments by providing background details about the family and factual information about its destination. This expository function often includes statistics (e.g., “4,000 Germans live in Somerset West”), which furnish the voice-over with authority.  A distinguishing feature of the German programs is the ironic, subjective commentary that encroaches into the voice-over as each family’s story develops.

The alternation between expositive and subjective voice-over on display in this episode is key to the German format’s project. The voices who announce statistics about émigré populations in South Africa and Spain’s political geography from their Olympian, heterodiegetic position are then to be trusted as they calmly—but scathingly—dash the dreams of their “foolish” subjects. In truth, the “informational” content of the vocal narration is selected with great economy: the details of Spanish meteorological trends clearly serve to dampen the Reimer’s hopes for year-round warm weather. The scene with Niklas and his nephew musing on the subject was in turn included to set up this disappointment. As will be clear from my discussion of the actual sociology of emigration, for as much as the shows may include some facts of German emigration, they do not represent the phenomenon factually.

The calm, deep male and female voices anticipate the problems that are to come. Later, when these issues do in fact arise, they scold the subjects’ ignorance and thereby lend themselves even greater authority. More than omniscient, these narrators are know-it-alls. Framed by this commentary, the fates of the subjects seem inevitable. The viewer is left to think that, if these narrators predicted the failures, the subjects must be simply too stupid to realize their mistakes. The narration’s rhetorical questions address us directly; its irony invites us to judge the subjects. Together, we and the voice-over conspire against the emigrants. 

In cases like the Reimers’, the format’s authoritative but ironic narration offers the viewer a moral to the prospect of emigration. On a national level, the programs’ rags to rags stories tell Germans that there is no place like home. Even in segments tracking very successful emigrants, the format’s message is mixed. The shows begin by listing the destination country’s attributes (e.g., sun or “laid-back culture”) only to dwell on the “flaws” in comparison to Germany. In the aforementioned 5 February 2008 episode, for example, the voice-over admonishes viewers who watch the Vaassen family argue about expanding their business,

“South Africa does not have the strong national social security system like at home.”

Furthermore, the case of Regine Janssen’s employment at the restaurant illustrates that, “unlike in Germany, in Canada waitresses are also responsible for cleaning in restaurants.” Shows emphasize problems of children keeping up German language skills; participants miss German punctuality and discipline, dark bread and affordable asparagus. As some subjects seem to thrive and others fail abroad, the format affords the pleasure of foreign landscapes and the utopian dream of emigration as well as the Schadenfreude of some fellow Germans’ stupidity or even ruin.

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