The Last Expedition
"I am happy to be able to look back on a long life in nature. The findings of the past few years in particular have shown me how important it is to limit our excessiveness towards nature. Only then will future ones also have generations the chance of a future worth living," said Heinz Sielmann. He passed away on Friday, October 6th, 2006 in Munich.
Unforgettable is this one scene from the Rwandan mountain rainforest, where Heinz Sielmann and his companions found a family group of mountain gorillas threatened with extinction. In the middle of the dense foliage and bamboo, the animals are resting, eating and playing, and Heinz Sielmann comments on the behavior of the shy primates in a whisper, but with a well-known nasal sneeze. The leader of the monkey horde - a mighty silverback - soon finds this all too colorful: he goes on the attack. However, Sielmann, a qualified biologist, does everything right, turns away from the gorilla boss so as not to provoke him with further eye contact, and crouches down – whereupon the silverback accepts the invitation to leapfrog and hops over the wildlife filmmaker.
Before the introduction of private television, pictures like these captivated millions of viewers in front of the screens and established the reputation of the later East Prussian, born on June 2, 1917 in the Rhineland. From an early age he was interested in his natural environment and how it could best be captured on film or photo. As a young man he was already enthusiastic about the snipe and wading birds of his new home in Königsberg, which he pursued with his first Mentor SLR camera - to the chagrin of his father, who feared disadvantages for his son's academic performance. On the other hand, teachers also granted him special leave so that he could pursue his passion for filming nature at the Rossitten ornithological station on the Curonian Spit, which was already renowned at the time.
There he immediately fell under the wing of Erwin Stresemann, one of the most important ornithologists of the early 20th century, and Horst Siewert, head of the "Deutsches Wild" research center and also animal filmmaker, who were of great importance for Sielmann's later life should. Because just one year after his high school graduation, which he did not expect, the Second World War broke out, during which the newly enrolled biology student was to be assigned to the Eastern Front in 1943.
However, Stresemann prevented Sielmann from actually becoming involved in these acts of war. His second mentor, Siewert, had died on Crete while filming shortly before he left, and now the young talent was to continue the work: instead of tank battles on the Don, the name was Eleonora's falcons in the Aegean, meaning that Heinz Sielmann had survived the war unscathed when he was taken prisoner by the British got caught and taken to London. Another positive twist of fate, because the British got him a job as a director and cameraman for natural history educational films at the Institute for Film and Image in Science and Education in Hamburg (later Munich) in 1947, whose productions about woodpeckers, hamsters or red wood ants probably almost every student of Germany.
Via Institut, Sielmann also met his future wife Inge, to whom he had been married since 1951 and who regularly accompanied him to filming at home and abroad. At that time, in collaboration with Konrad Lorenz and Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, groundbreaking film insights into the behavior of animals were made - for example into the breeding business of woodpeckers in their tree hollows. For this purpose, the tree was sawn open and the wall replaced with glass panels, behind which the camera was mounted. In 1954, the BBC's English version "Woodpecker" even surpassed those of the World Cup final in Switzerland with its ratings on the ornithophile island.
This new way of depicting animals and their environment established Sielmann's reputation as a pioneer and gave him his definitive breakthrough on television, for which he fabricated hundreds of productions over the following decades. Films that not only took him all over the world in search of interesting motifs, but which were also sold and awarded worldwide. He has received the Federal Film Prize for animal documentaries several times, the first prize at the Moscow Film Festival for "Rulers of the Jungle" about the gorillas of the Congo, the Grand Prize at the International Film Festival in Trento for a film about the Galapagos Islands, silver and golden bears at the corresponding festival in Berlin, Golden Cameras, Bambis – including one for his life’s work –, the Grand Cross of Merit with Star of the Federal Republic of Germany and many more.
In 1959 the successful series "Expeditions ins Tierreich" finally started, which ran on ARD until 1991. It shows the viewers the strange and enjoyable courtship behavior of birds of paradise in Papua New Guinea, breeding penguins in Antarctica, alligators in the swamps of the Everglades and of course the scenes with the mountain gorillas mentioned at the beginning. During these trips, however, Heinz and Inge Sielmann also had to accept a heavy blow of fate when their only son Stephan died at the age of 24 as a result of an accident during a trip to Africa in 1978.
From director to active conservationist
At this time, the nature conservationist and ecologist also woke up in the animal filmmaker, who in 1972 together with the congenial Bernhard Grzimek and Horst Stern as well as Lorenz, Eibl-Eibesfeldt and others founded the "Ecology Group", which opposed "a progress by away from nature and the lack of ecological awareness in industrial society" and must be regarded as one of the forerunners of the modern environmental movement. More and more such views were reflected in the films in which Sielmann warned against uncontrolled deforestation of the rainforests, concrete over the landscape or overfishing of the seas - programs with this tenor such as "Sielmann 2000" or "Sielmann Report" ran at the beginning of the Even on RTL and SAT in the 1990s.1. However, this cooperation annoyed the ARD, which therefore separated from him in 1991.
The mere listing of questionable developments was soon no longer enough for Sielmann and his wife: in 1994 they founded the Heinz Sielmann Foundation. Above all, it is intended to introduce children and young people to nature through their own experiences, to sensitize the public to nature and its protection, to set up an animal and nature film archive and to preserve large and small habitats for rare animal and plant species. For this reason, the foundation has been buying up natural areas for years in order to place them under permanent protection. Areas in the sparsely populated east of Germany are particularly in focus, where large, uninterrupted areas should offer an undisturbed habitat for white-tailed eagles and ospreys, otters and maybe even wolves.
A second focus - and one of Sielmann's affairs of the heart - has long been securing the Green Belt along the former inner-German border. Even before the fall of the Berlin Wall, a film portrait was dedicated to this wilderness stretching over a thousand kilometers. According to Heinz Sielmann, a national park was to be created here from the B altic Sea to the Thuringian Forest - a wish that seemed to be coming closer to fulfillment in the course of reunification. The years of negotiations that followed between the federal government, the federal states, nature conservationists and former land owners to finance the "Green Belt" nature conservation project also led to the desire for a financially strong nature conservation organization to mature. Today the foundation owns several thousand hectares of land and almost tens of thousands of people visit the reserves like the Gut Herbigshagen nature experience center in Lower Saxony every year: a legacy for the future.
It should therefore continue to be the case that - apart from Bernhard Grzimek ("Serengeti must not die"), who died in 1987 - hardly anyone else shaped the German image of nature and their understanding of nature as much as Heinz Sielmann and will shape. According to his foundation, he passed away quietly and with dignity surrounded by his family and friends on October 6.