GERMANY: Thomas Heise voyages into mental and emotional fractures

Dieter Wieczorek
Dieter Wieczorek
Wieczorek is a film critic and regular contributor to Modern Times Review.
Published date: May 3, 2019

Heimat is a Space in Time

(Heimat ist ein Raum aus Zeit)

Thomas Heise

Heino DeckertJohannes RosenbergerJohannes HolzhausenConstantin Wulff

Germany, Austria

Thomas Heise’s Heimat is a Space in Time had already made a profound impression at this year’s Berlinale. The main award from Nyon’s reputable «Visions du Réel» confirms we are confronted here with an extraordinarily intense work of documentary art creating its impact with quite simple aesthetic means, and taking its time to do so. The camera slips mostly over insignificant places: heaps of waste rock, architectural ruins, empty woods, train and underground stations, areas soon to be abandoned or in transition, creating an aura of fugacity, reinforced further by a strict reliance on black-and-white images. Some family archive photos are added and, exceptionally, a longer dialogue between the philosopher Wolfgang Heise, the filmmaker’s father, and dramatist Heiner Müller.

Generational letters
What largely dominates the film is the voiceover, which quotes the letters of four family generations, mostly bringing back the suffering, grief, and sorrow of people trying to keep their dignity in times marked by political disillusion, corruption, surveillance, and oppression. Heise has produced a key work of German history from 1912 to the present, especially focused on the living conditions of people, keeping their doubts and resistance awake as far as possible. Sequences of silence between the letter quotations evoke a vacantness – a borderline space of possible loss of identity and orientation.

The first letter can already be read as a synopsis of German fate and schizophrenia up to the present day. In 1912 Wilhelm Heise, Thomas’ grandfather, wrote a school essay against war where he describes it as an exclusive and endless human slaughter from which only a leading class benefits. In 1914 he notes the prophetic thought that «never will a nation forget the defeats and wounds inflicted upon it by the enemy, thereafter that hatred will yet again brutally vent its spleen in a fresh, bloody war.» Strategically-arranged superstitions and the willing abandonment of knowledge and enlightenment are clearly reflected in this essay. War kills all virtues. But after this lucid passage, the argument changes and expresses an unbroken will to defend the homeland «Germany» whenever it may be attacked. Then everybody in Germany will again be a «true, full-blooded patriot».

Don’t look here
The next quotations are from Wilhelm Heise’s first love letters to his future wife Edith. Her Jewish parents had settled in Vienna. An increasingly hasty exchange of letters in the days before their deportation points out the helplessness of individuals facing pure oppression. Their efforts to find positive aspects and fragile moments of happiness even in their profound misery, losing step by step everything on which their life depends, are a touching documentation of humanity’s need for hope. In this narrative sequence, Heise limits his imagery to a long list of all the deported, up to the moment when the names of his family members appear. Then silence.

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