Sites of acknowledged historical significance—battlefields, museums or specific locations of importance—hardly seem to exist in the present tense; they live as cordoned-off spaces of reflection and contemplation, where a peaceful Now blankets a turbulent Then. They are defined by their safety and quiet, often marked by plaques of remembrance, structures preserved or reconstructed, harmless reenactors. Visitors who pass through know that the history that has happened in this space is so consequential it has caused time to stop, that nothing else can happen atop what has already taken place. The present cannot look forward. It must look back.
Thomas Heise’s Heimat Is a Space in Time, a three-and-a-half-hour first-person opus tracing his family’s march through the troubled course of 20th century German and Austrian history, takes on the very sort of sensation described above, itself an isolated space for reflection on the past and an individual’s power in a flawed society. Now available for home viewing on Vimeo ($9.99 for a three-day rental), courtesy of Icarus Films and presented in partnership with Anthology Film Archives, there might not be a better new release option for quarantine viewing. It’s as good a way as any to hack four hours out of the day and consider, on Heise’s meditative terms, the ways in which our political structures shape our family history and personal existence.
In monotone narration, Heise begins his family’s story with his grandfather Wilhelm’s pacifist pre-World War I essays, and then moves to reading letters from Wilhelm’s courtship of Heise’s Jewish grandmother, Edith Hirschorn, in Vienna. Soon after Heise cements this relationship, we hear Wilhelm’s pleas to the Nazi government to spare his family. Heise reads increasingly desperate correspondences as the encroaching Nazis eventually detain Edith and relatives, all covered in a grueling 24-minute shot that slowly moves down a Nazi document of registered Jews, with the Hirschorns’ names underlined. The subsequent images show a pile of wooden ruins and concentration camp barracks, the segue edited to the tune of an old German folk song about perseverance with lines like “Whatever comes your way / Just you never mind,” “Take it on the chin” and “Somehow everything has its reason.”
This is Heise at his most direct, showing us images with clear correlation and cutting meaning. Personal tragedy, ruins, the historical site itself: Here is a view of the past not unfamiliar to anyone who has considered the American South. A history of death and destruction linger in the present, collapsing the rotted foundations of once-distinct regional and personal identities. Other shots, like one out of a Vienna tram’s back window fogged with rain rivulets, are less obviously attached to Heise’s family story. But it remains typical of an aesthetic motif: images in the background obscured by some filter in the fore—in one case, ambling city dwellers blurred by that fogged window; in another, tree branches blocking view of concentration camp barracks; in yet another, the gothic image of a bird carcass, skull and hollow eye sockets featured prominently, diluted by a dusty window. The present moment obstructs the past but does not block it entirely; it is never out of sight. As such, the film’s cinematography (by Stefan Neuberger, Peter Badel and Börres Weiffenbach) is almost entirely black and white, while certain archival documents retain flecks of color. Often this color is hardly visible, like blue lines of feint-ruled paper or light green checkmarks next to Jewish names on the Nazis’ list, but then there is the sudden burst of a full-color child’s drawing of Heise’s father, Wolfgang. This semi-reversed color scheme creates something of a paradox that renders the present with a sensibility of the past, and vice versa.
Heise presents passions and tribulations of yesteryear matter-of-factly, as if they are evidence of a deterministic perspective suggesting, with ample evidence, that our lives and our choices are dictated by the systems that organize our societies. When Heise reads a correspondence between his mother, Rosemarie, and one of her first lovers, Udo—the couple separated by the East/West Berlin split—he presents their discussions dryly, as if he did not know either party. Heise emphasizes how these bureaucratic limitations exist ideologically and spatially, quite literally shaping the opportunities available to us: The world imposes rules at the whims of those in power, and suddenly people who were together are apart even while living in the same city. This is a history specific to Berlin, but Heimat also views this trajectory as universal, just another rise and fall and rise of governments and systems. Yet the personal stories of Heise’s family, who remained in East Germany under the German Democratic Republic, inform this entire perspective, and its toll on the individual is never far from sight. Several die, several endure.
There is a scene of such stupendous clarity, around which the film’s entire runtime seems to coalesce, shortly after Rosemarie gives up the location of her husband, Wolfgang, an intellectual in hiding, for refusing to condemn an article critical of the GDR. This quotation, also noted at full length in Michael Sicinski’s excellent CinemaScope review, is from Rosemarie’s diary, recalling a conversation with Wolfgang. Wolfgang starts:
“‘We need to be clear about one thing: This state, like any state, is an instrument of domination, and its ideology, like all ideology: false consciousness.’ We stood still. I clearly recall asking, ‘So what should we do?’ We were silent for some time until he finally replied, ‘Remain decent.’”
It is a moment that reverberates well beyond the film, a sort of “all we have is each other” affirmation from individuals entwined in endless, Byzantine webs of cruelty, deceit and exploitation.
It would be reasonable to assume going in that a film of such personal content would be an introspective work, but Heise’s readings of letters concerning love and deportations are devoid of the emotion inherent to the source, though spoken with appropriate gravitas. Much of this material, when not paired with the actual corresponding documents, is read over seemingly unrelated images, such as Wilhelm’s courtship letters in concert with what appears to be a bustling ski lodge bar. Sicinski notes that Heimat’s use of location works as a “pushpin in a temporal map,” or a layering of the present over the past, and is reminiscent of the work of U.S. filmmakers like James Benning and Deborah Stratman. To me it seems he meets at the nexus of this experimental tradition and a Southern first person documentary tradition focused on digging up family history and revealing legacy. Excavation and deforestation are, as it happens, additional visual motifs in Heimat, a film full of haunted images like broken landscapes and people impersonally lensed at a distance or as a blur, ghosts.
But where, say, Ross McElwee (as in Sherman’s March (1985) and Bright Leaves (2003)) or Travis Wilkerson (as in Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? (2017)) are introspective and confessional, Heise remains emotionally aloof. The clear point of divergence would be that McElwee and Wilkerson’s ancestors came from the side of the oppressors, while Heise’s came from the oppressed, and so Heise is less interested in atonement (though there are several questions regarding complicity of individuals’ actions in service of the GDR apparatus). The decision to read aloud the pains of one’s own family history is an inherently inward-looking choice, but Heise’s tone is stately and direct, completely devoid of McElwee’s romanticism or Wilkerson’s righteous anger and activism. It feels less like Heise has burrowed into himself and reconciled with this history than he has revealed its objective account, stating with a truckload of personal evidence the symbiotic relationship between the personal and political. He has of course done the former but in a sort of cold disguise.
McElwee and Wilkerson’s films are not exactly formal comparisons to Heimat, much less to each other, but they are inextricably linked to an expansive and troubled cultural history by way of a historical consciousness that shapes identity through an exploration of lineage. And Germany, much like the American South, has a sour history with which to contend. Masked by Heise’s uncracking voice is a heartfelt search for how to retain personal dignity in a compromised society.
Heimat begins with a preface in the woods, dense trees populated by signs and painted cutouts of characters from Little Red Riding Hood—the only scene of the film entirely in color. The very first shot is a slow tilt to a sign that reads, “Here Stood Grandmother’s House”—signed the same as the site of any tragedy, also with a marking referential to a familial record. Heise reminds us mythology is history too; it exists in the same world as those barracks, surrounded at night by the same eerie woodland quiet, in a land haunted by both its fact and fiction. Folk history and factual history are always intertwined, but in the same breath, Heise suggests that reality can grow to be so harsh that it can suffocate olden parables of virtue, leaving them as a naive footnote to the mounting death toll of history. Likewise, a remembrance of the Woodsman saving dear Red and Grandmother is but a two-minute scene in a film running 218 minutes. The film reveals a national identity born from mythology: Over time the land has smothered its own mythos and, while not having killed it, imbued it in retrospect with the pain of its reality.
In the final scene of the film, in one of the few times Heise directly addresses his own thoughts, he speaks about the prospect of his mother’s impending death and says that he feels aimless in his current position as a theater director. His mother’s declining state seems to bring about these questions of the past—of her past, his past, the collective past—and what it might mean for him when she inevitably recedes into the history he has spent the last 200 minutes so clinically parsing.
Heise’s waywardness is in contrast to Rosemarie’s peace with her own eventual passing. With her death, the history that defines Heise moves into another realm, and he remains with its phantoms, with documents and objects left behind and the indescribable matter of memory. The film, then, works as its own cordoned-off historical site: a plane of reflection on a past composed of stories specific and broad. In Heimat Is a Space in Time, the imprint of the past is so dense and enduring that its spectral qualities drift beyond the battlefields, beyond the monuments, barracks and documents, to dissolve into daily life.
Daniel Christian is a writer and filmmaker based in Columbia, Missouri. In addition to Paste, he has written for Filmmaker Magazine and No Film School. You can follow him on Twitter.