At least the Reimers have access to a pool, even if it is tiny.

American Idol shares Goodbye Germany’s “sympathy alternation:” successful subjects alternate with poor or bizarre performances.

Come Dine With Me’s snide voice-over serves up the contestants’ inept cooking and hosting skills.

Sarah Beeny: the know-it-all “expert” narrator of Property Snakes & Ladders.

The Wess family, who emigrated to the Costa Blanca on My New Life.

My New Job: Bernd Mielke (center) won out to become electrician on Mallorca. 

On Tenerife, Maria Hahn takes surfing lessons and works in a parrot nursery (My New Job).

On The Returners Jens Krejci plans to leave his teaching job . . .

Ethnographic docusoaps

To note merely that the German emigration series do not reflect sociological statistics would falsely assume an ethical mandate that might be expected perhaps from the documentary, but certainly not from light factual programming. As Jonathan Bignell has argued, reality TV tends to feature the most “disturbing and shocking incidents” (2004: 125). In a program on shoddy building, for instance, any examples of quality construction that the producers may have found are not broadcast. The multinational iterations of Super Nanny never depict self-confident parents respected by their children. In Dateline NBC’s To Catch a Predator, we will never know if there were any men who discovered they were corresponding with minors and then immediately exited the chat room. Such footage would be undramatic and detract from the overall message that “dangerous pedophiles are everywhere.” 

And once Beatrix learns some Spanish, she hopes to meet the neighbors. “Beatrix doesn’t yet know that it will prove difficult to make acquaintances: the neighborhood is made up largely of holiday homes only inhabited in the summer
“In Spain, nighttime winter temperatures typically range between 5 and 8?C…not exactly conducive to a vacation feeling.” Undeterred by a disappointing night, the family heads to the waterfront. Voice-over: “The beach turns out to be nothing but a harbor for yachts: disappointing.”
The Reimers’ future looks uncertain. “Good that the Reimers don’t know now how many problems that will come their way.”

Goodbye Germany and the like are, by any measure, docusoaps and not documentaries in the classical sense. Their access to the subjects’ lives is “organised around dramatic uncertainty, voyeurism and popular pleasure” (Ouellette and Murray 2004: 2). Rather than concerning themselves ethically with the human subjects, the shows encourage conflict in their characters and profess the “ability to provide viewer an unmediated voyeuristic, yet playful access to the entertaining real” (3-4). Unlike the traditional documentary, committed to portraying a “balanced” selection of opposing perspectives, recent actuality television like Goodbye Germany takes a Wild West view of society: it presents a world founded on uncertainty and ruin “with institutions represented as impossibly distant” (Bignell 2004: 126).

We can discern specific dramaturgical reasons behind emigration shows’ deviations from representative emigration. The shows almost always follow pairs and families abroad, rather than single individuals, who, as the data reveal, in fact make up a larger proportion of German emigrants. In an interview (Deutscher Depeschendienst 2007), VOX-spokesman Matthias Schwarz revealed the show’s selection process. Goodbye Germany eschews individual applicants in favor of pairs or families because they precipitate “more dynamics”; ideal applicants have “mixed goals.” In other words, families with mixed emotions about leaving home increase the chances of a dramatic payoff: more quarrelling and tears, more homesickness and more of a chance the project will end in ruin. Schwarz also reports that the producers choose “protagonists from all social classes, from welfare recipients to the rich.” Although Schwarz’s pronouncement wants to promote the program’s diversity, this social cross-section, as I have noted, obscures the actual concentration of businessmen and the self-employed with definite prospects abroad.

We might also rationalize the shows’ infrequent depictions of Germans emigrating to those countries which are in fact the most popular destinations. For aesthetic, cultural and dramatic reasons, the producers choose to venture with subjects to exotic destinations rather than the (for German sensibilities) mundane landscapes of Switzerland or the UK. Rather than the countries to which Germans most often emigrate, the show depicts the lands which Germans would most like to tour; Goodbye Germany clearly partakes of the travel show. Overall, the producers’ selection of subjects points to what is indeed quite unique about this German genre: Goodbye Germany hinges on a collision between the entertaining real and ethnographic real and on a mixture of Reiselust and Schadenfreude. The shows intimate a new form of citizenship, one that is unique from other national takes on the emigrant shows.

European trend or national symptom?

The German expat series depict emigration much differently than do cognate programs in foreign markets. Across Europe, light factual travel programming is surely widespread. However, shows like the Spanish Callejeros viajeros (Street Travellers, Cuatro), Danish Så er der pakket (All Packed Up, DR1) Italian Sì, viaggiare (Rai Due) or Finnish-Swedish På luffen (On the Road, FST) would seem to have only superficial affinities to the German emigration shows. The Dutch Ik vertrek (I Am Leaving, TROS) is exceptional in its similarity to Goodbye Germany and must be mentioned here. Although it is beyond the scope of this article, we might venture that the Dutch example explores a similar depopulation anxiety. After all, the Netherlands was the only other EU-15 country experiencing a net emigration as of 2006 (BAMF 161-162). Nevertheless, there are not insubstantial formal differences between Goodbye Germany and I Am Leaving. The latter lacks, for example, the German examples’ intrusive and subjective voice-over; in the Dutch version the narrative voice is expositive rather than evaluative.

As a way of comparison, let us look more closely at two British light factual programs on emigration. The first, A Better Life Abroad? (ITV, 24 April 2009), appeared as an episode of ITV’s Tonight series. It portrays Britons considering emigration. In the context of the international recession (and shots of boarded-up shops and businesses), a number of families state their reasons for wanting to leave. These include “push” factors from home (e.g., violence, government, “too many foreigners,” “stressful” South of England) and “pull” factors abroad (sun, beach, affordable property). A carpeting subcontractor and his family relocate successfully from Manchester to Adelaide and a police officer becomes part of a larger wave of colleagues from Leicester who have moved to Canada. Although much of these stories are positive (including a portrayal of a British enclave in Dubai), A Better Life Abroad? does portray an electrician who wishes to return to England after a lengthy period of unemployment in Australia.

Overall, two important emphases emerge from this program. First, the show refers to the larger history of British emigration and includes file footage of Southampton to depict previous waves of Britons leaving for Australia. With this gesture and others (e.g., interviews with the editor of Emigrate magazine), the show acknowledges the developed Commonwealth mobility industry and normalizes emigration as traditionally and typically British. Second, A Better Life Abroad? defines emigration less as a cultural experience or personal transformation and more as a transaction of net worth. One key segment introduces a man originally from Birmingham who moved to Australia decades before. His success is measured by the millions he made from the rise in property prices on a hostel he had bought shortly after his arrival.

This emphasis on buying a house abroad and on benefitting from property prices is typical of the British shows. Witness There‘s No Place Like Home? (ITV), a cognate of the German The Returners. In the 4 May 2009 episode, an IT-technician‘s wife wants to leave New Zealand, where the family has lived for years, to return to Bradford. An immediate difference to the German example is the presence of “relocation expert” Catherine Gee as onscreen personality and off-screen narrator. This estate agent is a major interlocutor in the narrative of possible repatriation. She accompanies the husband, wife and children on a visit to northern England and pre-selects three houses that may be suitable for the family. After the family eventually decides to remain in New Zealand, the property expert, with tears in her eyes, hugs the family goodbye at the airport. The emphasis on houses in these scenarios reveals how the Anglo-emigration programs are above all a subset of a typically British genre, so-called “property porn.” Changing Rooms; Grand Designs; Location, Location, Location; House Doctor; Escape to the Country; or A Place in the Sun portray subjects renovating or buying properties, usually as an investment rather than as a domicile.

To summarize this brief comparison between the UK and German shows, we must conclude that the British examples tend to reflect the actual destinations (Australia, New Zealand, France, Spain, USA), whereas the German format dwells on destinations farther afield than the actual patterns of migration would suggest. Although the British shows give quasi-social reasons to leave (arguments about knife crime, “too many Eastern European foreigners”, bad weather) that are not incompatible with the German subjects’ (unemployment, “stress”, bad weather), the British are ultimately more concerned with property values than cultural transformation. The onscreen realtor in There’s No Place Like Home?, who works in the interest of the potential migrant, serves as the most stark contrast to the German examples, where the ironic, subjective, but anonymous voice-over works against the participants.

. . . and repatriate his family from South Africa . . . . . . back to Bavaria.
Jens’ daughter, Lilith Trassl, is hardly excited about her father’s plans. Tears and drama as Lilith doesn’t want to leave her South African beau.

Go to page 4

To topPrint versionJC 52 Jump Cut home

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.