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In Living Memory

Thomas Heise’s aching archival essay Heimat Is a Space in Time listens to the voices of a family across the 20th-century cycles of destruction and rebuilding

Made by a native of the no-longer-extant German Democratic Republic, Thomas Heise’s historical memoir–cum–three-generational family history begins somewhere in the Black Forest with an invocation of a Brothers Grimm Kindermärchen—a slow tilt up a wooden post to a faux rustic sign reading “According to Legend, Here Stood the Grandmother’s House.” Life-sized wooden cutouts of fairy-tale creatures lurk among the trees. Once upon a time...

If Heimat Is a Space in Time were a fiction film like A Hidden Life or Jojo Rabbit (to name two recent features glossing over the worst episode of Germany’s recent past), it would be an avant-garde masterpiece—a narrative interweaving multiple voices, including that of the state, eschewing transitions, and alternately doubling back on itself or jumping unexpectedly into the future. As it is, Heise’s scrupulous, sometimes recondite 218-minute collection of documents, diaries, letters, and landscapes is a powerful work of material thought excavated and assembled, under a suitably gnarly Heideggerian rubric, by a man whose grandfather, Wilhelm Heise, helped found the Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands (Communist Party of Germany), and whose father, Wolfgang Heise, was the leading dissident philosopher in the old GDR.

Twentieth-century German history may be the filmmaker’s birthright, but in defiance of family tradition, Thomas Heise dropped out of school and sought manual labor before working his way toward cinema via radio and theater. The documentaries that he has been making for nearly four decades are at once raw and cerebral—there are definite points of contact with intellectual (West) German filmmakers Alexander Kluge and Harun Farocki. They are also deeply personal. Most of the early ones were banned, and even the later films are largely unknown and unavailable outside of Germany.

Heimat (screened at the New York Film Festival last year) is elliptical yet detailed, generous even while withholding, distanced but compelling, heady to the max and just as emotionally absorbing. The movie is divided into five chapters, during which the voice of the filmmaker alone is heard reading, without annotation, the documents he has salvaged. His measured tone and unhurried delivery have a hypnotic neutrality, matched by the crisp austerity of the black-and-white images.

The first part of the film, focusing mainly on the aftermath of World War I and the war that followed, concerns the courtship, marriage, and persecution of Heise’s paternal grandparents, Wilhelm Heise and Edith Hirschhorn. He is a Communist schoolteacher whose career is derailed by the Nazis; she is a Viennese Jew. This section also introduces their son Wolfgang by way of letters written to his parents from a forced labor camp for mischlings (mixed-heritage persons such as himself). Physical suffering is compounded by intellectual deprivation: “We can’t see the flow of history,” he tells them.

More remote than his parents, Wolfgang will be often referred to but not heard from again for hours. (In the movie’s sole instance of direct recording, he discusses an incomplete piece by Bertolt Brecht with his former student, the dramatist and theater director Heiner Müller.) The subject of the movie’s second section is not Wolfgang, but his future wife and the filmmaker’s mother, Rosemarie “Rosi” Barke. Her diaries describe the war’s terrible end and chaotic aftermath, as well as several postwar romantic involvements—including one with a boy named Udo, whose antipathy toward Communism was nearly as strong as her belief in the new worker’s state. The section ends with Rosi meeting and marrying Wolfgang, a fellow Communist, and giving birth to two sons, the younger of which is Thomas.

Even though Wolfgang is the protagonist of the movie’s third section, he is seen largely through Rosi’s letters to him. From her correspondence we can deduce that he loses his job at the prestigious Humboldt University, is censured if not expelled from the Party for his defense of the Marxist dissident Robert Havemann, and, fleeing Berlin to the North Sea to recover from this trauma, suffers some sort of nervous breakdown. The novelist Christa Wolf makes a cameo appearance (in a letter written to Rosi), as do Wolfgang’s two most celebrated students, Müller and the nonconformist singer-songwriter Wolf Biermann.

Although not directly acknowledged as such, Müller will become something of a mentor and a model for Thomas, who introduces himself in the fourth section, reading a homework assignment he wrote at age 15. Already introspective, he confesses to disliking his brother. Although the bulk of this chapter is concerned with the miserable aspects of Thomas’s military service in the 1970s, recounted in letters to his mother, it also alludes to his rebellious adolescent behavior and reaches a sort of negative crescendo with the inclusion of Stasi surveillance reports filed by diligent neighbors on his parents. If the filmmaker suffers from a psychic disturbance, his society is afflicted all the more so.

Heimat returns to Rosi for the final days of the GDR; Thomas is also present, working on projects with Müller, including Despoiled Shore Medea Material Landscape with Argonauts, first staged in the early ’80s. (Fractured even by the standards of the playwright’s previous work, it transposes a pulverized update of Euripides to a gruesome East Germany, with a side trip to Hollywood.) There is also an incident of arrest, confinement, and interrogation, which may be a consequence of the filmmaker’s activities, even if it also feels like an extension of Müller’s theater.

As an artist, Heise has adopted something of Müller’s discontinuous, yet associative, use of the found and fragmentary. Material (2009), which might be considered Heise’s breakthrough film, anticipates Heimat in being a 166-minute montage of outtakes—mainly from earlier GDR projects, including footage of Müller’s production Germania Death in Berlin, mass demonstrations in Alexanderplatz, and the demolition of the former East Berlin’s closed Palace of the Republic—all presented in achronological order, with a discordant score by Charles Ives. Heimat, which recycles material Heise previously used in his 2002 Fatherland, suggests a kindred deconstruction, in this case of the Ken Burns template for document-driven historical documentary.

Nothing is seamless. “I act as if everything already took place some 2,000 years ago, where no one knows anything about the broader context of the time anymore,” Heise told an interviewer during the 2019 Berlin Film Festival, where Heimat had its premiere. “These fragments are the only thing available and can be used to make some sort of picture, although there are many, many gaps between them.” Characters surface and disappear. We never know if Wilhelm survived the war (he did), or how Edith managed to avoid deportation—only that Rosi met her when Wolfgang brought her home in 1954 and was struck by her good cheer.

Heise’s strategies include sound-image juxtapositions, as when an ominous airplane buzz is heard over a bucolic forest scene, and the use of contemporary footage to complement a period description. Wilhelm’s recollection of meeting Edith’s siblings at a spa in the 1920s is accompanied by images of contemporary young people, carefree and socializing at an Alpine ski lodge; Edith’s postwar resume is read over shots of Vienna seen through a rain-streaked tram window.

Even more poetic, not to mention weird: Rosi’s description of her transactional relationship with an amorous Yugoslavian trade representative is counterpointed by a static image of a drab echt East German apartment façade, with a large decorative snowman incongruously peering out of a first-floor window. Letters referring to Wolfgang’s removal are juxtaposed with empty corridors and classrooms, and culminate in a shot of a highway so mangled that it suggests the aftermath of an earthquake.

Not entirely sui generis, Heimat has affinities with Samy Szlingerbaum’s austere restaging of his mother’s displaced-person voiceover recollections in Brussels Transit (1980), as well as with James Benning’s frequent use of sound to contextualize landscape (or vice versa), and with Sergei Loznitsa’s neutral deployment of found footage. The closest analogue is the Paraguayan film artist Paz Encina’s 2016 Memory Exercises—part landscape study, part historical excavation for which she mined Paraguay’s so-called Archives of Terror, a trove of dossiers, surveillance photographs, and audiotapes uncovered after the fall of the Stroessner dictatorship.

Heimat’s most cited sequence arrives at the end of the first chapter. Alphabetical deportation lists of Viennese Jews scroll on screen as the filmmaker reads increasingly anxious letters sent to Edith in Berlin from her family in Vienna with the outbreak of war. (Amazing that these desperate messages were delivered and that Edith manages to preserve them.)

The deportation sequence lasts nearly half an hour. It not only recounts, but in some small but real way it reproduces, the “fear and dread” experienced by Jews waiting to see if their names will appear on the list for these eastbound transports—organized, as viewers of Claude Lanzmann’s The Last of the Unjust may remember, by that film’s subject, Benjamin Murmelstein. The sequence ends with the names of Edith’s relations scrolling on screen, then plunges into onscreen nothingness. This is followed by an audio shock cut to an inanely cheerful ditty in which the popular film star Marika Rökk advises her audience to “look straight ahead” because “everything has its reason.”

The song “Mach Dir Nichts Daraus [Don’t Worry About It]” is from the 1944 musical spectacle and would-be morale booster The Woman of My Dreams, soon after cited by Wolfgang in a letter where he expresses his relief that an air raid has spared him from having to see the movie; it is reprised again in Heimat’s fourth section, when Thomas is describing the idiocy of his military service, the song having become something of a German national anthem. “Don’t Worry About It” heralds a shift in Heimat’s imagery. The remaining three sections will visualize Germany as a dead land of piled-up detritus, despoiled woodlands, and derelict barracks in which the main human presence is signaled by scrawled graffiti. A wounded, abandoned planet, the GDR is animated mainly by trains that pass by the camera, an inevitable metaphor for the progress of history.

Overwhelming emptiness is illuminated only by human consciousness. (Bewitched, bothered, and Bewusstsein.) Not the least and maybe the most remarkable thing about Heimat is the quality of the writing on display. Wilhelm’s homework assignment from 1912 is a precocious, prophetic essay that defines war as a mass slaughter waged to benefit the ruling class, yet one that unavoidably and even understandably results in full-blood patriotism. The imprisoned Wolfgang’s letters home, written with a copy of Friedrich Hölderlin’s poems at hand, are unusually thoughtful given the extremity of his situation. But the most descriptive and introspective writer is Rosi. Her diaries and letters, possibly unsent but saved, are the heart of the movie.

In January 1945, at age 18, Rosi reports on a ski vacation shadowed by distant bombs and flares of light—a prelude to the firebombing of her native Dresden. Having survived, where tens of thousands did not, she emerges from a basement shelter to see the city burning and, amid the sound of strangled cries for help beneath still falling buildings, rides her bicycle to the center, looking for relatives: “The railway viaduct on Goethestrasse had collapsed. I squeezed through the debris carrying the bike. Everything within me froze in repulsion as I stood there in front of the first cadaver. A young girl of about 11. Her right arm was nothing more than a charred stump. Her face had remained intact, as though coated in lime powder. Her eyes were shut and her mouth half-open in a childlike smile. I remounted the bike.” Throughout Heise’s reading, the camera pans over a wintry, sparsely forested landscape, indelibly scarred by Rosi’s words.

Three years later, Rosi has embarked on her tortuous epistolary romance with Udo as well as several other affairs—something, one suspects, that her son may have discovered only after her death. She is obviously a Communist true believer, just as Udo adamantly is not; the diary selections give evidence of her politicized readings. She criticizes For Whom the Bell Tolls for its romanticism while praising a Soviet equivalent, And Quiet Flows the Don. However, when Wolfgang brings her to the Heise family home, she is thrilled to find the place full of books.

Although it is not made evident in the movie, Rosi would become a significant figure in GDR literary culture, as a translator and editor of East German editions of Sergei Eisenstein and Walter Benjamin. Heimat’s fifth section begins with a flashback to earlier in the timeline, via the reading of a note she sent to Müller thanking him for lending her a copy of Borges’s Labyrinths. Apparently it was written in 1966, because it expresses her regret at the suicide of Müller’s wife Inge. It also contains the revelation to the viewer, if not to the filmmaker, that Rosi, too, might have contemplated and maybe even attempted suicide.

Toward the middle of the section, Thomas reads a 1991 letter that Rosi received from Christa Wolf, articulating her mixed feelings regarding the dissolution of the GDR and the creation of a U.S.-led New World Order. The camera pans in close-up over a Socialist Realist mural, pausing over the image of an optimistic girl, thus encouraging a connection between this radiantly smiling child and the filmmaker’s mother. What follows is a 1993 letter from Rosi to Christa (now in residence at the Getty Research Institute and living in Santa Monica), in which she responds to the discovery that the novelist had for several years been a Stasi informant.

Rosi describes her own roughly contemporaneous experience of being an informer, articulating a cumulative sense of grief and shame, already hinted at, in her mortification at having told the Stasi where, at the height of his troubles, her husband had gone into hiding. (On the screen, the train of history rolls implacably past.)

Heimat Is a Space in Time ends in 2014, a full 25 years after the Berlin Wall fell, with the filmmaker reading his own words. He is in Berlin. Rosi has been moved from her apartment (the repository for much of the film’s material) and resettled in a nursing home where she will die, memorialized by her son in a film that might have been called Here, According to Legend, Stood My Mother’s House.