copyright 2010, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 52, summer 2010

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.)

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.

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.

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?”

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 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?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.”

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?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.

Sympathy alternation, or Schadenfreude and Reality TV

Although the emigration series participate in a peculiarly German public discourses, their editing, narrative form and address resemble an array of international formatted documentaries and reality TV. Take for example Goodbye Germany’s cross-cutting between successful and unsuccessful emigrants. This pattern is also a fixture among casting and gamedoc programs such as the various national iterations of Deutschland sucht den Superstar (Germany’s Looking for the Superstar, RTL), American Idol (FOX), Austria’s Starmania (ORF1) or Britain’s Got Talent (ITV). Typically, these programs follow scenes of truly superb performers with sequences of (intentionally or not) poor or bizarre performances. This design of variation, what I would call sympathy alternation, is vital to the shows’ narrative structure and rhythm.

Stella Bruzzi calls patterns of crisis and conflict in reality TV “the crisis structure” (2006: 127-128). In her formulation, this is how reality TV maximizes entertainment value:

“The inherently dialectical structure of many of these formats … leads naturally to conflict: personalities clash, individuals argue and assert themselves, reconciliations are reached and often broken. Conflict is also an important factor in the programs’ broad appeal and series … [which] are structured around a formalised series of collisions” (138).

To my mind we need to press this concept further. Surely, conflict is the basis of all drama, from Aristotle to classical Hollywood cinema and beyond. The more urgent questions are what kind of entertainment and what kind of crises? Why we find these outcomes so desirable?

For me, the answer to these quandaries lies, for instance, in the subtle but scathing Goodbye Germany off-screen narration. The attitude (if not form) of Goodbye Germany’s voice-over finds comparisons with the snide heterodiegetic remarks on Come Dine With Me (Channel Four) and the “know-it-all” host figures and homodiegetic narrators on Britain’s Got Talent or in Property Snakes & Ladders (Channel Four). These figures and voices encourage the viewer—if the editing had not already been sufficient—into a position of pleasure in the subjects’ misfortune. Reality TV’s production of Schadenfreude clearly begins in the pre-production selection process and continues with prompts, interview questions and framing during filming, the editing of story arcs with (and into) crises and the attitude of the onscreen interlocutor and/or off-screen narrator.

In its most positive incarnation, Schadenfreude is a “love for justice” (Portmann 2000: xx). But is it truly this noble emotion that drives us to watch these tales of crisis en masse? It could be argued that a democratic mode of Schadenfreude rules for programs like Punk’d (MTV) or Anonymous (ITV), which treat high-status celebrities to embarrassment and humiliation and thereby brings them down to “our level.” But where, after all, is the justice in the destruction of a working-class family’s dream to move to Spain? To claim that these programs merely punish the stupid and ill-prepared would disavow what we know about the precise pre-programming of these failures.

Indeed, the clear cues that make these crises seem inevitable appeal to our sense that suffering should have meaning, that it derives from the subjects’ “obvious” oversights and poor planning. Empirical psychological studies show that another person’s responsibility for a misfortune intensifies Schadenfreude (Van Dijk, et al. 2008). Reality TV therefore manufactures this sense of the subjects’ culpability for failure through formal means, lest the viewer feel sympathy or pity. The consumption of Schadenfreude encourages our sense of intellectual and moral superiority over the documented subject. The subjects’ failures are self-confirmations that soothe our self-esteem and excuse our inertia. When a dreadful singer bombs or the Reimers must return home, we feel better about our position on the couch watching them and our failure to act on our own aspirations.

Schadenfreude is not a new phenomenon, just as the narratological and emotional underpinnings of reality TV have a long pre-history in the medium and in the documentary. Nonetheless, this guilty pleasure does seem to be more readily available and to have become socially acceptable. In a recent poll, only one of every three participants admitted having a bad conscience for enjoying another’s misfortune (Wilkins 2009). John Portmann encourages us to see Schadenfreude “in terms of apportioning credit and debit” (12). I find this analogy appropriate at an historical point where another sort of credit has proved overdrawn. To my mind Schadenfreude is a symptom of the hopelessness that flourishes in times when the gap between the most and least successful is widest—and when the reminders of this disparity are most stark.

Emigration TV as a phenomenon

As noted above, Goodbye Germany is but one of a whole host of emigration programs. These include Mein neues Leben (My New Life, Kabel 1), Mein neuer Job (My New Job, Kabel 1), Auf und davon (Up and Away, VOX), Grenzenlos verliebt (Love Without Borders, VOX), Tränen am Terminal (Tears at the Terminal, Kabel 1), Umzug in ein neues Leben (Move to a New Life, RTL) and Die Auswanderer (The Emigrants, PRO7). Although the bulk of these series has appeared on private channels, the nation’s public and regional channels followed suit with series and numerous one-off documentations of their own (Deutschland ade [Germany adieu, ARD]). Additionally, long-running news formats (e.g. Spiegel TV) devote special programs to emigrants or instruct countrymen on how one might best become an expatriate. The sheer number of series is but one marker of their popularity among producers as a “ratings guarantee.” Audiences are similarly enthusiastic. Three episodes after its August 2006 premiere, Goodbye Germany boasted an 8% share of television spectators (and 9.3% of 14-49 year-olds) on Tuesdays at 8.15pm (Mantel 2006); in July 2007 VOX doubled the broadcast time to 120 minutes. Daily reruns make these shows inescapable for afternoon viewers.

German emigration TV is more or less interchangeable. The few distinguishing variations in form, style and subjects prove the rule. For instance, My New Job features a competitive element: three contestants must prove their worth to land a “dream job” abroad. The show then illustrates the first days of the subjects’ jobs. Typical examples are Bernd Mielke, an electrician in Mallorca or Maria Hahn, who works in a parrot nursery on Tenerife.

Up and Away specializes in shorter-term “emigrations” such as au-pair sojourns, school years abroad, or gap years. Witness Rükiye, a 20-year old woman who is doing an internship at a day care in Spain or Alex (20) and Lilli (18), groupies who follow the band “Tokio Hotel” on tour. In a typical episode it also depicts one subject who comes to Germany from a foreign country (e.g. a Romanian au pair).

Love Without Borders revolves around long-distance relationships, usually witnessing the resolution of this situation when the German packs her bags to move to an exotic locale. The public-channel contribution Nix wie raus (Nothing Like Getting Away, hr), although advertised in previews and suggested in its title to be part of the emigration-show wave, is actually a more traditional travel show offering attractive destinations within Germany and Europe. Kabel 1’s short-lived series Tears at the Terminal filmed groups waiting in airport terminals. Its presenter spontaneously interviews them and tries to provoke stories.

Finally, Die Rückkehrer (The Returners, VOX) takes a short cut to drama by featuring emigrated Germans returning to their homeland. A typical episode features a family like the Krejcis. Father Jens is teacher in the German school in Hermannsburg, South Africa, but misses his Bavarian roots. He comes into conflict with his daughter, who is in love with a local boy and does not want to come along with the family back to Germany, where she will not be able to have a horse.

This television format must be seen as part of a larger concern with emigration in the media and popular culture. In the mid- to late-‘00s, newspapers published a slough of articles with frightful statistics about emigration: “Every four minutes a German leaves his country,” the neo-liberal Cicero claimed, blaming high taxes and bureaucratic curbs on innovation for the exodus (Wolfram 2008). The quality Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel quoted government officials who said that the “crème de la crème” was leaving Germany (Der Tagesspiegel 2008). Munich’s left-leaning Süddeutsche Zeitung cited a poll by the prestigious Allensbach Institute (Berth 2008). It revealed that more than a fifth of Germans wanted to seek their chances overseas. Although the location and ideological persuasions of these publications varied, the message remained the same: Germany is experiencing a dangerous depopulation and brain drain and there are more people leaving than ever before. Many of the articles mentioned the television shows as symptomatic of an entire nation desperate for “anywhere but here.” The observations were not unfounded. The makers of Goodbye Germany and Up and Away released an instruction manual for emigrants with the Bertelsmann publishing house (Meier 2009).

In order to highlight how these programs respond to these discourses, the representation of the subjects and the shows’ narrative trajectories deserve closer examination. In the typical emigration shows, it is above all ethnic German pairs or families leaving their homeland. In the rule the subjects are frustrated, often unemployed, and want an end to their “bureaucratic life” in their homeland. Many speak accented German from eastern Germany (especially Saxony), Westphalia or Swabia. Their destinations tend to be either exotic locales like India or Bali or Anglophone countries. Spain, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, USA, Canada, Sweden and Pacific islands are perhaps most often represented, in descending order of frequency. Many of the participants cannot speak fluently the language of their adopted culture. Although sometimes the participants travel with their career prospects secured, more often they have either vague ideas or risk entrepreneurial adventures in new fields. Exemplary jobs include work as a baker in Spain, ice cream entrepreneur in South Africa, architect’s assistant in Dubai, mechanic in Norway, cowboy in Texas, grape picker in Australia, caterer in Costa Rica, bellhop in New Zealand, crêpe-makers in Utah, hotel manager on Gran Canaria, Husky trainer in northern Sweden and sausage vendor in Italy.

Representation and reality

The representation of German emigration in these shows is out of step with real patterns of migration to and from the country. The most recent statistical reports—Auswanderung aus Deutschland ([Emigration from Germany], Sauer and Ette 2007) and the Migrationsbericht des Bundesamtes für Migration und Flüchtlinge 2007 ([Migration Report of the Federal Department for Migration and Refugees], BAMF 2009)—offer a prospect of migration which diverges significantly from the popular imagination. First and foremost, the overwhelming majority (about 82%) of those leaving Germany are non-Germans. Of the 11.6 million people who left Germany between 1991 and 2007, 9.5 million were foreigners (BAMF 2009: 146). This figure includes migrant workers, students returning to their home country and asylum seekers denied permanent residence. This majority group of emigrants is almost never depicted in the TV programs (Up and Away being the exception that proves the rule).

Even if we focus only on the emigration of German citizens from their home country, the true figures belie the media’s hysterical portrait of a mass exodus. In 2006, 155,000 German citizens left Germany (Schupp et al. 2008: 1-2). Although it is true that this figure represents an absolute increase in emigration since the 1990s and that 2005 and 2006 were the first years since 1968 during which more Germans left the country than returned, it is important to put these numbers into context. In 2006, about 100,000 Germans returned to Germany, making for a net emigration of about 55,000 Germans. At 0.01% of the population, this hardly constitutes a mass exodus. A European comparison puts these figures into perspective. In 2006, the same year that 155,000 Germans left Germany, 207,000 British citizens left the UK (National Statistics 2007: 1-2). Taking into account the UK’s 2006 population of 60,587,000 compared with Germany’s 82,300,000, we find that the UK experienced an 81% larger proportion of its citizens emigrating than German citizens leaving Germany that year.

It is not only the quantitative extent of emigration that does not correspond to the perception of German reality TV programs and newspaper articles; the show subjects are not representative of the actual demographics of emigration. A significant number of participants in Goodbye Germany are working class, uneducated and/or unemployed—think of the Reimers in Spain. They wish to leave Germany permanently and the shows emphasize their naïveté about the adopted culture as well as their lack of linguistic and professional skills. They often come from Eastern Germany or poor areas in the West and choose to embark for exotic lands or classic Anglophone immigration countries.

In actuality, German emigrants tend to live abroad temporarily rather than permanently. Indeed there is no true “brain drain,” but rather a brain circulation: the most highly qualified are especially apt to return to Germany (Schupp et al. 2008: 49). In the rule they are self-employed or businessmen (rather than businesswomen) between the ages of 16-40 (Sauer and Ette 2007: 38). Far from being ignorant about their chosen culture, the migrants have already spent time abroad and have contacts there; they typically speak the destination language “well” or “very well” (Schupp et al. 2008: 58). Their reasons for leaving are not only economic, but include social or cultural factors, educational or professional opportunities and the interests of retirees (Sauer and Ette 2007: 47-69). The emigrants come seldom from East Germany or relatively poor regions of West Germany. The highest rates of emigration are northern Hessen and southern Hessen including Frankfurt, the Lake Constance region and the Rhine-Palatinate province as well as Munich and Upper Bavaria. Indeed, excluding Berlin, the former East Germany exhibits the very lowest level of emigration (Sauer and Ette 2007: 34-37).

The destination countries of German emigrants have changed dramatically in the last decades; this has not been registered in the narratives of Goodbye Germany and its kindred programs. Whereas in the 1950s two-thirds of German emigrants moved to the classical immigration countries USA, Canada, Australia or New Zealand, there has been a steady trend towards intra-European mobility. By the 1980s, 40% of emigration was taking place to other European countries; by 2000, two-thirds of emigrants remained on the continent. The most remarkable trend since 1995 has shown a dramatic rise of migration to Switzerland and the UK, as well as a steady increase of moves to Austria. (East German emigrants—to 28%—are particularly apt to choose Switzerland or Austria as their destination countries.) The most popular destinations are currently Switzerland (15%), USA (9%), Austria (7%), Poland (6%), UK (6%), Spain (5%) and France (5%) (Sauer and Ette 2007: 31-34). These trends do not correspond to the stories of German emigrants on domestic television. Although Goodbye Germany and the like may be symptomatic phenomena of a postwall popular German culture which imagines a mass exodus of ethnic Germans, they present narratives which hardly reflect contemporary demographics of emigration.

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.” 

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.

Flexible citizenship

The German format surely entertains an ethnographic pleasure by indulging the subjects’ fantasies of the “unbureaucratic life,” sunny skies, re-inventing oneself, the entrepreneurial adventure of the free-market economy, being one’s own boss or owning one‘s own house or garden—to name the reasons that the subjects most often provide for wanting to leave their homeland. In turn they offer the viewer a safe window to this world as vicarious dream. In this way, the emigration shows are symptomatic of a frustration with Hartz IV (the popular name for the 2005 law which reduced social benefits) and the malaise of the young middle class’ perceived shrinking opportunities vis-à-vis the generation of 1968. The programs are—especially in the instances where the émigrés thrive—often promotions for these individuals and their businesses. The Husky trainers in Sweden, a pair of “cowboys” in the USA, and the Vaassen family in South Africa (all of whom offer bed & breakfast accommodation) surely participate in order to advertise themselves. Some subjects may hope to achieve a measure of celebrity, one traditional feature of the docusoap’s blurry divisions of “television and ordinary reality, program and audience, public and private, stardom and anonymity” (Bignell 2004: 200).

Most strikingly, the shows negotiate a 21st-century definition of German identity unhinged from the geographical boundaries of the nation-state. Some stories—particularly those which follow subjects who have lived for years and even decades abroad—imply a special ability of the German-born to assimilate into their new culture, even suggesting that the subjects become not only citizens of the adopted country but culturally or ethnically indistinguishable from the natives.

Take the case of Konny Reimann and his family from Hamburg, who emigrated to Texas in 2005. Reimann has been featured on more than one of the emigrant formats and has published both a ghost-written autobiography and a cookbook (translation: Konny’s Barbeque Bible). Reimann is infamous for his self-aggrandizing appearances. Not only does he—after only a handful of years living in the USA on a Green Card—wear cowboy hats and boots and speak German with an American accent. He has assumed the full cultural and political identity of an American. For example, in German media, Reimann has advocated the death penalty. Although this position may be mainstream in Texas, it is unthinkable in Germany and espoused only by provocative members of neo-fascist parties. In cases like the Reimanns’ there is a distinct sense that Germans become the “better” Americans or Australians, taking on the most conservative and caricatured features of their adopted cultures. That these shows depict such scenarios reveals a certain cultural relativism that allows Germans to adopt stances that would be impossible in their native country.

Even in the stories whereby the subjects ultimately fail and must return to Germany, the initial arrival scenario implies this mobile sense of citizenship. One typical tableau—serving prominently in the advertising for Goodbye Germany and recurring in nearly every story—features the subjects holding the national flag of their adopted country shortly after their arrival, often in front of an iconographic landmark (Times Square, Sydney Opera House). This mise-en-scène is suggestive for a number of reasons. First, it reinforces the idea that Germans can quickly, indeed almost effortlessly and immediately “become” Swedes, Spaniards or Costa Ricans. Second, the flag-waving is curious because of what it in effect replaces: Germans’ patriotic feeling towards Germany. Although the 2006 World Cup noticeably loosened attitudes, it is still socially unacceptable to fly the German flag or to admit that one is proud to be German. These shows allow Germans to partake of a projected patriotism. Third, these images, in which a German, now “Australian” family stands before the Sydney Opera House, put the very concept of these programs into serious question. Are these emigration shows or touristic spectacles?

Indeed, the many stories in which the subjects—in spite of their original enthusiasm for their adopted country and the initial appearance that they have “become” exponents of their destination culture—end up in despair and returning to Germany within less than a year, interrogates the conventional ontology of emigration: its permanence. These shows often depict a temporary emigration, emigration as an extended form of tourism or even emigration as a national sport.[1][open endnotes in new window] It is after all tourism, rather than emigration, that we see as a form of knowledge-acquisition, a short-term cultural epistemology that we hope will have a long afterlife in our memories.

The German shows symptomatically question whether emigration, in its classical sense, is even possible. Emigration clearly means something different even from 30 years ago, when the prospect of a daughter or son leaving for foreign shores—and again, usually for America or Oceania—meant the occasional letter or the expensive phone call at Christmas. Today we have inexpensive and even free phone calls, Skype, e-mail and instant messaging, blogging and cheap air travel. One can reasonably “keep up” with both familial and national events to the point that emigration or exile loses its essential quality of permanence. This constitutes what Aihwa Ong, in a perhaps more serious 1990s’ Chinese context, calls “flexible citizenship.”

This reality programming illustrates dramatically how emigration can become a performance. New cultures can be tried on and then discarded; ethnicity becomes a loose term rather than a fixed determinant of identity. The motto of My New Life—“Adventure Emigration”—is programmatic. These shows have a narratological and dramaturgical affinity to their sister subgenre, the makeover/transformation show. The contestants try on a new culture that might better complete or complement their disposition or identity, and the viewer judges on the results of that makeover. There is always a way back, a reversal to any reversal of fortunes.

The flexible citizenship on offer is particularly curious in the context of the political debates around immigration, which until very recently defined national identity in an opposite fashion. In the 20th century, the German state(s) oriented their immigration policies around a strict version of the so-called Jus sanguinis, i.e., that Germans “become” Germans by virtue of being born to a German. (This view of citizenship contrasts with the Jus soli, the rule in most of North and South America and in hybrid forms in much of Europe. It dictates that location of a person’s birth can determine his or her citizenship.) As the Federal Republic became increasingly multiethnic with the invitation of foreign “guest workers” in the 1960s and 1970s, the naturalization laws produced strange results. Turkish guest workers’ children and even grandchildren, who had grown up in Germany and in some cases had never been to Turkey nor could speak Turkish, were often denied German citizenship on this basis. In 2000, the Social Democratic/Green government passed a new immigration law that loosened the regulations for naturalization (though not for immigration itself). Nonetheless, it is extraordinarily difficult to reconcile the blithe form of emigration that plays out in the docusoaps with the still culturally entrenched “rule of the blood” immigration—not to mention that these shows play out against the news footage of Africans dying close to the coasts of Malta and Italy or detained in internment camps in their efforts to gain entry to the EU. The ironic subtext to German emigration television is the question of immigration and the ugly discourse of Überfremdung, the idea that with the immigration of non-whites, Germany is becoming “too foreign.”

This seeming paradox of emigration/immigration may suggest one of two conclusions. The first would call attention to new research on popular understandings of German citizenship. Reflecting on interviews with young working-class Germans, the sociologist Cynthia Miller-Idriss maintains that although German legal and institutional forms of citizenship may have been traditionally defined as biological or racial in nature, the understanding of citizenship among the majority of Germans themselves includes foremost “residence within a geographic set of borders” (2006: 553), the willingness to work and contribute to the nation-state and the desire to be part of the national community (i.e. cultural and linguistic assimilation) (556-557). Rather than using solely racial, genetic or ethnic criteria, the German populace considers citizenship to be above all a “practice” featuring a “choice of membership” (554).

The second and perhaps more cynical conclusion would surmise that the German citizenship is in fact a one-way street: ethnic Germans can easily assume a new identity by emigration whereas foreigners can hardly become Germans. This would suggest a conception of European migration in line with Ginette Verstraete’s recent findings. She suggests that the “borderless space of mobility” so integral to the post-wall German and European identity is mythic and pertains to another sort of movement: managing and indeed violently preventing “illegal” immigrants from penetrating the borders of the European Union (Verstraete 2010: 4-5). Verstraete argues that these phenomena go hand in hand: just as Europe has erased its internal national boundaries for Europeans and made them more mobile (whether for tourism or longer stays), it has erected and fortified its external boundaries to “undesirable” migrants. Largely blind to the role of “guest workers” in creating their wealth, middle-class EU citizens subscribe to an ideology of privileged movement such that free travel for work or pleasure has become an ontological category of being European. In an almost perverse way then, Germans’ tourism and expressions of emigration as manifested in these programs engender a sense of belonging among Germans and consolidate the nation identity: leaving Germany or desiring to do so makes one more German.


1. Surely, there are particularly German connotations to tourism, living abroad, emigration and exile that would be taken into consideration in a different sort of deliberation on this topic. These include notable accounts of Germans living abroad from Goethe’s Reise nach Italien (Italian Journey) and Böll’s Irisches Tagebuch (Irish Diary) to popular contemporary literature like Maria, ihm schmeckt’s nicht! (Maria, He Doesn’t Like It!). Exile literature, particularly surrounding the German-Jewish diasporas is in no short supply. This would also entail examining today’s university and business climate in which Auslandserfahrung (the experience of studying, working or simply living temporarily abroad) is a necessity for job applicants and promotions. It might also take account of the infamous German passion for tourism en masse, especially in the Mediterranean countries.


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