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.

Sequences of silence between the letter quotations evoke a vacantness – a borderline space of possible loss of identity and orientation.

The lyrics of a popular song, «Don’t look here, don’t look there – Just look straight ahead – And whatever may come – Just never mind», ring out sometimes, justly pointing out the common state of mind characterised by a complete loss of existential grounding and orientation. In West Germany the myth of the «Zero Hour» led to an unprecedented reestablishment of material and economic well-being in quite a short time. Yet, in East Germany, a state ideology promising equality and social justice soon transformed itself into a self-validating power machine. The hopes of those who believed in a socialist society vanished. Heise accompanies these facts with images of endless passing freight trains and fenced-off, deserted zones.

The next chapter follows the decline in Wolfgang Heise’s position due to institutional intrigue and confrontations. Christa Wolf remembers her meeting with him when, after a lucid political analysis of the corrupt state power, he was asked what one could still do, and after a long silence pronounced: «Anständig bleiben» (keep honest – keep your integrity). Political condemnations, as for example the expulsion of Wolf Biermann, are accompanied by the image of a collapsed bridge.

Heimat is a Space in Time, a film by Thomas Heise

In the next chapter Thomas Heise starts to refer to himself and his military service, but also to the growing surveillance of his parents, who are watched in all of their movements and activities. The following chapter focuses on the inner conflicts of intellectuals living in the «real socialism» of a GDR tragically marked by the «separation of knowledge and power», and the «clinch between revolution and counterrevolution» (Heiner Müller) already pointed out earlier by Bertolt Brecht. Heise’s mother Rosie describes the divided mental states of those around her in her diary, describing, for example, Heiner Müller’s inner split: «He’s like somebody fascinated to observe a growing man, who is none other than himself». The painful intellectual task is, as she notes, to finally confirm that in those days of the Cold War they trusted the State and the Stasi but then saw what they gradually became, without believing this insight initially, without wanting to believe it.

Waking up the monsters
For all of the disappointed, the Western living style had never been a convincing promise or alternative. In a 1991 letter to Rosie, Christa Wolf laments that the rulers of the « … Pax Americana … will configure things in such a way that our beloved planet will perish along with them.» Thomas Heise’s Neustadt. Stau – der Stand der Dinge (2000) documents the degrading living conditions and ideological radicalisation of the no-future youth, new victims of the capitalist occupation which marked the days after reunification, causing despair, recession, and the loss of self-esteem. «Being German» once again started to fill up the void of the forgotten in the most dangerous way. Without a re-examination of the history of oppression, being once again oppressed and colonised by the suggestion of collective guilt, the disenfranchised have their scars and start to cry out for new wounds.

Emancipation from the past, accusation of the oppressors, and demands for redress have never been realised, but energies have instead been vented in attacks against the even weaker: the asylum seekers and poverty-stricken foreigners, the poor against the poorest. Not a finger is laid on a single property shark, regardless of what nation they come from. The reaction to the economic war against the right of abode is war against the homeless.

the disenfranchised have their scars and start to cry out for new wounds.

Heimat is a Space in Time ends with observations about Heise’s dying mother, the end of a century carrying painful memories. His documentary is a key work in understanding that the denial of historical injuries can only wake up the monsters again, as his grandfather noted in his 1912 school essay.

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