Heimat is a Space in Time

Review by Matt Turner

Directed by

Thomas Heise

Starring

N/A

Anticipation.

A four hour historical essay film is a somewhat intimidating prospect.

Enjoyment.

Immensely well constructed; compelling despite its severity.

In Retrospect.

A serous, summative work. An ambitious formal achievement.

German documentarian Thomas Heise examines his family history around the turn of the 20th century.

“Why do we have to live through these times?” This question found in documents drawn from 1942 is one that is just as pertinent today. Constructed from correspondences plucked from the filmmaker’s own family archives, Heimat is a Space in Time works through a great number of questions over its near 100-year-long time span (and near four-hour runtime), many of which are unanswerable, too great, or else rhetorical by design.

Heimat is the latest film by Thomas Heise, an East Berlin born filmmaker who has been living and making films long enough to have seen the times change – his first films, made in the early 1980s, were banned under the GDR. The central observation of Heimat is history’s propensity to repeat itself. The various characters – all members of Heise’s immediate family – all suffer persecution or oppression under several different state powers, and humankind’s unwavering capability for torment and treachery (both active and unconscious) is a thread that runs throughout. Is it possible, Heise asks, to retain your humanity within a dictatorship?

Spanning from the end of the 19th century into the start of the 20th, the film reroutes the stories that emerge from Heise’s own genealogy into a broader national history, rendering the personal political in a scale and seriousness rarely seen on screen. Alongside scanned documents and photographs, letters are read aloud by the director for most of the film’s duration, paired with extraordinarily well composed cinematography by Stefan Neuberger accompanying scenes of contemporary Germany. It is stark, striking and always in sobering black-and-white.

Through these letters, familiar stories emerge: wars are waged; people are put into camps; couples fall in love; families are formed and then torn apart. Some of the scenes described are universal, others are more idiosyncratic and specific. Despite all that is endured, romance remains a regular motif. An enormously dense and difficult film, no family tree or timeline is provided to tie these stories together.

No map is provided around the web of networks, nor a compass for navigating them. Certain assumptions are made about the viewer’s ability to not just piece these fragments together, but place them against a national history which in turn imbues them with a greater weight and potency.

Heise’s unerring monotone voiceover plows ever forward through his mass of material. He retains an emotional neutrality despite the intensely personal nature, and maintains the film’s impressive, if imposing, rigour throughout. Years pass, regimes change, yet the letters continue, always precise in their descriptions of the present and prescient in their perception of imagined futures.

Wolfgang Heise, Thomas’ father and a famed philosopher, once wrote that, “this state, like any state, is an instrument of domination; and its ideology, like any ideology, is a false consciousness.” It’s a pivotal line, mirroring the film in its clinical, punch-packing precision. “What can we do?” asks another character in response. Thomas reads Wolfgang aloud, one Heise echoing another. The answer? “Remain decent.”

Published 21 Nov 2019

Tags: Thomas Heise

Anticipation.

A four hour historical essay film is a somewhat intimidating prospect.

Enjoyment.

Immensely well constructed; compelling despite its severity.

In Retrospect.

A serous, summative work. An ambitious formal achievement.

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