“HEIMAT IN SPACE AND TIME”— Balancing the Historical and the Personal


Balancing the Historical and the Personal

Amos Lassen

In “Heimat Is a Space in Time”, filmmaker Thomas Heise’s photographic material creeps across the screen, indifferent to the camera documenting it, which often only catches human faces for a brief moment before staying in negative space. The film is a survey of 20th-century German history through the lens of Heise’s own genealogy. The emphasis on the micro over the macro extends to every facet of this sprawling four-hour work, which attempts to excavate real human thought and feeling beneath the haze of larger political structures.

The film is made up of a series of documents—snail-mail correspondence between family members, letters to and from government offices, transcripts of recordings, personal diaries, school papers, and more that are read aloud one after another by Heise in a soothing baritone. The narration is a near-constant stream of family lore. Every once in a while we’ll hear a date at the end of a letter or a reference to a historical event, but otherwise we’re left to piece together the timeline and relations of family members through context clues.

To encourage close listening, Heise slows the visual track and shows archival material and original footage with scrutiny. Mostly static monochrome shots, some animated by slow lateral movement occupies the screen for up to minutes at a time, sometimes with a subtle parallel to the spoken word, other times a counterpoint, and in certain instances acting as a riddle.

Heise begins at the dawn of World War I with an academic essay by his grandfather, Wilhelm, whose writing shows his contempt for war and its societal cost. This establishes the film’s overarching tone of resistance. At the end of this, there’s a juxtaposition of shots—first a shadowy image of a cargo train moving into or out of a station and then a slow pan of enjoying a party in Berlin and the implications of this weigh over the following=g sequence of exchanges between Wilhelm and his lover, Edith Hirschhorn, a Jewish woman who was studying sculpture in Vienna. The strange and macabre significance of trains in German history needs no explication, and Heise has shots of them throughout the film while periodically layering the soundtrack of muted field recordings with distant locomotive rumbles to underscore this tragic past.

The legacy of WWII is the film’s most harrowing chapter, a nearly half-hour sequence where Heise scrolls an extremely long Third Reich document listing the names of Viennese Jews shipped by train to labor camps in the early ‘40s. As we’re subjected to this evil banality, Heise narrates the dozens of letters sent between Wilhelm and Edith as she becomes gradually aware of the awful reality behind the Nazi party’s presence in Vienna. It’s one of the few sections in the film in which dates are cited, and as the time between dates increasingly widens with each letter received. Edith’s anxiety grows and the acknowledgment of time passing becomes heavy with pathos. The sequence’s conclusion coincides with Heise’s camera reaching the end of the Nazi’s list, at which point there’s a black screen. The implication is clear.

If the film had ended there, at the close of the first of four chapters, “Heimat Is a Space in Time” would be quite a formidable addition to the canon of Holocaust films, one that gains ts power largely through inference and indirection. Where it goes from this point is more demanding, less immediately emotional, and less compelling to a non-German-language viewer because of the specificity of the historical incidents covered and having to read the large amount of subtitles. Broadening in scope, the film follows a path from Wilhelm’s experiences in a mixed-race work camp to his son Wolfgang’s coming of age in the German Democratic Republic, where in the peak of his professional life as a dean of philosophy, he was victim to the Stasi’s control, ultimately ending in a self-imposed exile.

This section of the film is filled with correspondences between Wolfgang and Heise’s mother, Rosemarie, as well as between Wolfgang and his various colleagues. Many of these exchanges are heady and discursive, with analyses of Brecht and Borges rather than emotional addresses. In fact, the film shows that in times of repression, this kind of discussion becomes an alternative to personal expression.

As we watch, Heise serves up visual evidence of the decay of the same institutions and structures that, in the readings, are so oppresive. The point isn’t to draw a false sense of triumph from their defeat so much as it is to lament the idea that all this suffering may have yet to lead to any better future. The film calls on the viewer, through duration and framing, to contemplate landscapes where terrible events occurred not that long ago and to think about how history still imprints itself on these spaces.

Even with their ambiguities, the films ultimately bring about a righteous fury about the histories they depict. Heise’s build-up of facts, records, details and dates leaves only clarity in its wake and a conviction that so many lives were painfully changed by state harassment, and that any modern attempt to rebuild atop sites of atrocities must start with a collective recognition and understanding of this. In looking at his own family tree, Heise is really appealing to an entire nation.

The film opens with a verdant color sequence (with references to the beloved folk story of Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf) and then shifts to stark black-and-white visuals. This works well with Heise’s own narration, which is flat and unaffected, even when he’s speaking as different characters. Heise moves through history like a dispassionate archivist, voicing both facts and feelings with little-to-no emotional inflection.

“Heimat” touches on such macro events as World War I, the rise and fall of Nazism and German discontent, economic and otherwise, before, during and after the Berlin Wall. In micro counterpoint, Heise tells the story of his own family.

“Heimat” means ‘home’ or ‘homeland’ in German. The roots of the word go back to the 11th century and has no exact English translation. The word has taken on many different and conflicting connotations over the years. Most damagingly, it was promulgated during WWII by the Nazis, who transposed its core tenets – based around a love and attachment to one’s native land – into an evil, nationalistic belief system that called for the persecution, and eventually extermination, of all those who posed a threat to the ‘purity’ of Germany’s ethnic identity.

With his latest feature, Heimat Is a Space in Time, veteran documentarian Thomas Heisetaps the term’s more metaphoric dimensions, while situating it within a highly personal survey of the Federal Republic’s chequered past. Stretching over four generations, from the years just before WWI to the present day, this at once epic and intimate essay film charts Heise’s family history against the backdrop of the larger cultural and political events that have shaped both the country’s legacy and its collective sense of self. Utilising letters, photographs, drawings and various other archival materials to trace these entwined histories, Heise narrates the trials and tribulations of 20th-century Germany in a rich and engrossing voiceover that imbues the words and experiences of his relatives with an urgency undimmed by the passage of time.

Running 218 minutes, the film unfolds in sprawling yet largely chronological fashion, beginning with the story of Heise’s greatgrandparents, Wilhelm and Edith (a German and a Viennese Jew, respectively), whose courtship as young adults studying between Berlin and Vienna in the 1920s was soon threatened by the Nazis. As Heise reads from their handwritten letters, we see corresponding images of presentday Mitteleuropa. These passages, shot in high-contrast black-and-white, link past and present through tranquil landscape imagery and numerous shots of trains crisscrossing the countryside, a motif that grows increasingly troubling as the story dovetails with the rise of the Third Reich. In one extended and harrowing sequence, Heise reads a series of distressed letters from Edith’s parents as page upon page of Nazi documents scroll vertically down the screen, listing the names of thousands of Viennese Jews who were sent to the death camps.

After the war, Heise’s ‘mixed-race’ family was displaced across a newly divided Germany. During the Cold War, in the decades leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall, successive generations attempted to rebuild and reconcile this lineage in the wake of unspeakable tragedy.

Heise’s father, a philosophy professor named Wolfgang, becomes a prominent figure in Heimat’s second half. At one point we hear an audio recording of him and East German playwright Heiner Müller discussing Bertolt Brecht and the intersection of art and politics in contemporary Europe; a later epistolary correspondence between Wolfgang and Heise’s mother Rosi, a well-regarded author, fills in details about their relationship after the former is forced to flee Berlin for refusing to condemn anti-communist ideology and sign a document protesting a controversial news article about the inner workings of the GDR. As he does throughout this quietly remarkable film, Heise offers up these humble acts of humanity as a simultaneous testament to faith and perseverance, traits that will remain necessary as long as history insists on repeating itself.

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