Interview: Thomas Heise
Heimat Is a Space in Time (Thomas Heise, 2019)
In Thomas Heise’s Heimat Is a Space in Time, nearly 100 years of German history is traced through the words and testimony of the director’s family. Stretching from just before WWI to the present day, the film combines a wealth of archival materials—letters, photographs, drawings, official state documents, and other ephemera—with original black-and-white landscape footage shot at a variety of historically blighted locations across East and West Germany. With clear-eyed resolve, Heise, reading from the diaries and the intimate correspondences of three generations of his elders—including, most memorably, his great grandparents, a German and a Viennese Jew whose relationship straddled the two World Wars and eventually succumbed to the terror wrought by the Third Reich—gives voice to a series of personal indignities that in turn chart the greater arc of 20th-century European violence. Running 218 minutes long, Heimat Is a Space in Time is the rare breakthrough work from a veteran filmmaker that acts at once as a perfect introduction to an artist’s oeuvre and as a grand summation of his style and interests. “Heimat is elliptical yet detailed, generous even while withholding, distanced but compelling, heady to the max and just as emotionally absorbing,” J. Hoberman writes in his feature in Film Comment’s March/April issue.
Following a screening of Heimat at the 2019 RIDM documentary festival in Montreal, where the film won the Jury Prize, Heise and I struck up an email correspondence about the film. His detailed memories and deeply felt observations regarding both the project and his upbringing confirm an artist of uncommon dignity and poeticism.
Can you tell me a bit about your childhood? We learn so much about your family in the film, but I’m curious how you grew up and how you first learned about some of the events described in the film?
I was born in Berlin in the mid-’50s, 10 years after the war. We lived 20 km away from Friedrichshain, on the southeastern edge of Berlin, in an idyllic villa suburb called Hessenwinkel. The villas, built from the end of the 19th century to the first third of the 20th century, were often abandoned by their owners at the end of the war. The houses were first taken over by the Soviet military administration, and later by the municipal housing administration. Now refugees, displaced persons from the East, and other needy people were quartered here as tenants.
The villas and houses were divided into flats and the originally well-off, villa-owning population quickly became a mix of tenants from all social strata We lived in a house divided in such a way, which had been solidly built in the middle of the ’30s. There was now a lower and upper apartment, each with two-and-a-half rooms. We lived in the lower apartment and above us was Mr. Kramer, the caretaker of a local recreation home.
On the almost half-hour walk that my brother and I took every morning to our kindergarten, we had to pass a large barracks. This belonged to the border soldiers of the National People’s Army, which in 1956 had been proclaimed almost parallel to the newly founded Bundeswehr. Around the barracks stood a high and opaque black wooden fence soaked with coal tar. Along the fence stood masts with old station loudspeakers, from which radio hits were blasted. We sang along: “Marina Marina Marina / You are the most beautiful in the world / Wonderful girl…”
Our teachers warned us against the Americans, who regularly circled the barracks in a dark, matte green road cruiser, often throwing us what was certainly poisoned chewing gum, which we were otherwise keen on. We didn’t notice anything about the wall back then. It wasn’t talked about at home. We had no relatives or acquaintances in the western part of the city. A coincidence, without any political reason. That only began to play a role later, as we grew older.
Do you have any memories of what life was like in your very early childhood, before you entered kindergarten?
I remember a May demonstration and that there were big gaps between the houses, with many ruins. Those especially impressed me, more so than the moving vans with huge figures on them, showing fat capitalists made of paper mâché with cylinders and distorted faces. That is my earliest memory, blurred images: the jagged, dark wall striving skywards, a big emptiness in between, and large piles of stone at the roadside. That must have been well before 1961, because I was sitting on my father’s shoulders and was amused by it all. I’m not sure what came along later, but I am sure that this memory is like another piece of film. There is no beginning and no end, just this short shred of film, a shaky picture with jagged black walls, laughing people, sun in the blue sky, and me riding on my father’s shoulders.
How did your parents explain the events of the time to you?
I remember one day I came home from school, and unlike most days, my parents were there. They were standing in the hallway when I came in. I don’t remember my brother being there, but he must’ve been, because my mother said: “You must now do exactly what we tell you. There may be a war.” They reassured us that they knew what to do, since they had already experienced a war. But I dreamt of this as a nuclear war.
My grandmother Edith had to do forced labor in a laundry during the war, while my grandfather Wolfgang and his brother Uncle Hans were in a labor camp. We never talked about it at home. The past was rather abstract and took place in films or books, not in reality. But I remember they often played records with songs by Ernst Busch from the Spanish War. I can still sing the songs today. Also a song by Brecht which tells the story of a starving horse in Berlin after the war that the starving people threw themselves on after it collapsed, to cut the meat from its bones.
That my grandmother had sisters and a brother, and that they had disappeared and later escaped, was not known to me for a long time. Fascism and war, on the other hand, were topics very early in school. There were poems, books, and songs about it. Even in the books of the lowest classes it was mentioned. So was the history of the Soviet Union and the October Revolution, in books like How the Steel Was Tempered by Nikolai Ostrovsky, about the resistance of the working class and the communists against the fascists. Also The Seventh Cross by Anna Seghers and Mikhail Sholokhov’s And Quiet Flows the Don, not to mention countless films.
In a small room in my grandmother’s apartment there was a huge dark cabinet with the good dishes—much too big for the room, where there was also a photo with the death mask of my grandfather, whom I had never met, hanging on the wall. I must have been relatively small to have crawled under the sideboard to explore what was behind it. There I found an old shoe box. It contained multiple pieces of folded paper: brown and grey wrapping paper of various sizes and several envelopes with green and violet stamps showing Adolf Hitler. My grandmother then told me that these were letters from my father and Uncle Hans, from a work camp on an airfield near the town of Zerbst. That’s all she told me. I remembered the place where the letters were stored and at 14, without knowing exactly what I wanted to do with them, I secretly took them for myself to read. I got myself a magnifying glass. Because of the forbidden stamps on the envelopes they held something mysterious for me, and because I knew nothing of my father from this time except the abstract fact of a camp stay. I couldn’t decipher the letters at first, but I didn’t give them back to my grandmother either. I just kept them.
Was seeing these stamps the first time you became aware of Hitler?
I can’t tell you that. At first it was the unusual violet color that struck me. Stamps were usually green and showed a portrait of the President of the State Council, Walter Ulbricht—whom I knew of, because his picture hung everywhere until it was exchanged in the early ’70s for Erich Honecker, who eventually deprived him of power.
Probably the first time I heard about Hitler was in the early years of school, around or after 1961. From the beginning he had something shady about him, but also something mysteriously interesting. He was never alone; he was always in connection with the capitalism that had produced him. He played no role in our home life. It was his reputation that led me and probably most children to secretly scribble swastikas somewhere or carve them into the bark of trees. I was often in the forest in those days. There was a beech forest nearby, whose trees were often marked with signs, with names—sometimes in Russian, hearts, sex organs, and swastikas.
Do these memories of the forest correspond at all with the first images we see in the film: the sign that locates the site of “Grandmother’s house” and the lawn figurines of Little Red Riding Hood and other mythical characters?
No, that’s something different. The shield is mysterious if you don’t know that this is about Little Red Riding Hood. It stands in space, so to speak. It doesn’t really localize anything. The high pines tell of a distant past—nature that grows above man. The forester, the wolf, the grandmother, and the Little Red Riding Hood figurines, cut from steel plates, set up and painted awkwardly, are probably monuments or memories. They clearly date back to the time period after 1990 and are an attempt to attract potential tourists to the very lonely Brandenburg region. They extend the past to the present, but it could also be something from a distant future. We do not know. And then there’s the strange transformation of the Little Red Riding Hood figure. If one looks closer, it has the face of a boy with a red cap. Then follows the image of the perhaps 3-year-old with the German flag, which is a photo of me, in 1958 or ’59, when the GDR flag had no official emblem. It was the black, red, and gold (or yellow) of the Weimar Republic. Our teacher explained it to us: black stands for the soil of the homeland, red for the blood of the working class fighting for freedom, and gold for the grain that grows on the soil. But I can’t say whether she just made that up for us children.
The forest with the signs is something else. Beech bark is soft and smooth, the bark of the pines is hard and brittle. We drove there to shoot those scenes out of personal sentimentality and spent two relaxing and sobering days there. It was a place of childhood for me. Above all it was a place of silence. You don’t hear any traffic or planes there. Only the sound of the wind and strange birds. I liked that.
Can you tell me a little about filming the locations where many of these past events took place? How did you go about locating the sites, how did you hope to depict them, and also how long did this part of production take?
The film was untidy. There was a book that roughly contained the story, but not all the characters. It was more a fragment of traces and questions, a hunch, nothing precise. But I knew we had at least the arc from Wilhelm’s school essay to Heiner Müller’s essay.
I spent almost a year with a student of mine working on the texts: deciphering the letters, diaries, notes, and other documents. We copied everything and stubbornly arranged it chronologically into over 40 files. We weren’t even finished with the transcription, let alone with having any greater conception of the film, when I had to set shooting dates and production times. Some locations were pure [speculations], such as Tyrol, where Edith’s sisters had met Wilhelm with Otto at the summer resort. I had no idea what Tyrol was, what the municipality of Zell am Ziller looked like, or what was there. I added some locations to the production for personal reasons, like Peenemünde, the first rocket launch site in history—not because I was a soldier of the GDR National People’s Army, but because the barracks there are the same type as the barracks where I had served and at Zerbst Air Base, where concentration camp prisoners were accommodated, as well as the forced laborers of the Organization Todt, which included my uncle and my father, and later the soldiers of the Soviet army. These barracks were always the same—”versatile,” as one of the letters says.
But otherwise I had no real idea. There was always a lot of pressure to decide on locations and it had to go fast. A few initial locations grew into more and more locations. Some places we seemed to find by the wayside, so to speak, like the Rotkäppchenwald, the lake with dead sheep in it and the swan. I set the shooting time quite arbitrarily for February, independently of everything else, perhaps to have snow, and certainly to have no greenery and no leaves, with flat, often pale light. To have peace; to claim something, a safety that never really existed.
We started to shoot landscapes and places without any concrete text reference. We proceeded associatively, without a decided order, quite freely, without knowing much except that we were producing material for the film. The same goes for the sound. We gave the sound engineer—a musician, actually—the assignment to follow his thoughts on the story, not the story itself, and he went somewhere far away, through woods and fields, and listened to the creaking of the trees, the cry of distant animals. He recorded everything he found important. That was new for me and everyone involved—it was exciting, to just move like sensors in space and time.
Can you describe the research and archival process? You’ve worked in the archival form in the past, but this project seems so personal and expansive. What was it like diving into family and state documents in such a thorough manner?
I’m reminded of a quote by Stephen Hawking, that a black hole is a group of events that you can’t escape very easily.
I’ve tried to bring together the different collections of mail, diaries, notebooks, calendars, etc. I knew parts of this material, but not the context. A student of my film class at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, a Germanist, helped me to systematize this to some extent. He always asked good questions when he didn’t understand something or didn’t know how to classify it. Then I had to think. That was good. We arranged everything chronologically as much as possible. All this material was stuffed disorderly into boxes, envelopes, and bags. It was a complete mess, often incomplete: conclusions without beginnings, beginnings without endings, fragments without dates. Everything was copied and filed. The copying process creates the permanent presence of the texts in the mind. Then everything piles up on top of each other. I always took notes when something seemed important or interesting to me, and marked these pages in the folders: always the original in a slide in front of the copy, with comments, often question marks. We did this from April 2017 until the start of shooting at the end of January 2018.
By the end there were 40 large folders—or there still are. A heap of files is still on my table, and on the floor below are the excluded diaries of my mother’s father in boxes, as well as her mother’s diaries, and the suitcase with letters to me. I’m still trying to classify it all, slowly, like a snail, oscillating between Vienna and Berlin. Somewhere under the pile on my table must still be the page, the sheet that my father had in the typewriter before he died. I took the paper out of the typewriter and held it in my hand just a few months ago. Then something else came up and the paper sank down, among the other things, and simply never appeared again. Again and again I search for it, sporadically, if it occurs to me. There is no end in sight.
Your work seems to indebted to various forms of cinema: on the one hand landscape filmmaking and observational nonfiction, and on the other, essay and archival filmmaking. How did you first come to these storytelling modes, and are there any particular filmmakers you’ve looked to for inspiration when embarking on these personal journeys through the past?
What all my works—the films as well as the plays I have directed, and the works for radio—have in common is their biographical foundation, even if it is certainly not apparent at first glance. It probably has to do with my broken biography, the multiple, mostly forced, rapid changes. In addition, I was never really part of a milieu. Once upon a time there was a really large circle of my parents’ acquaintances: writers, painters, sculptors, composers, scientists, literary scientists, actors, singers, and lyricists, among whom my brother and I grew up very naturally. As we grew older, the relationships to unite with others changed and from that grew a closeness of our own.
At the same time, completely different childhood and youth friendships developed from school and the teachings we learned on the streets. Each came from completely different, rather proletarian social contexts. These friendships, which had a great influence on us, did not develop solely in the form of discussions. What does this have to do with form? I learned to be a printer because I also wanted to become a proletarian. At the same time I started experimenting with Super 8. After my apprenticeship I was determined to become a film director, to make feature films. But maybe not really, because I had no idea how to achieve it. I had only unattainable role models.
Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Accatone (1961) was one of the most impressive films I saw at that time. The images of the desolate suburb, the laymen who were “great” as laymen, the compelling and casual narration, Bach’s music… it’s like a passion story. That impressed me very much and did not let go—it always comes back to me. The interest in connecting things that apparently don’t belong together is something that has interested me again and again. In the ’90s, while NATO bombed Yugoslavia, I directed a stage version of Heiner Müller’s adaptation of “Titus Andronicus,” a two-hour choreographed slaughter in verse
Luis Bunuel’s Los Olvidados (1950) was also a film that reached me in a different way, with its mixture of mercilessness and pathetic redemption with multiple endings, the social and psychological interest. Why Make a Film about These People? (1980) was later the title of my first documentary in film school.
The experiences of military service should not be underestimated either, a time in which I, like everyone there, was forced to live in a barrack for 18 months with complete strangers whom I had not chosen to live with. I was 18 years old, and books became a way to escape: Bertolt Brecht, Thomas Mann, Volker Braun, Shakespeare, Arno Schmidt, who was special—everything I could get. Later, Alexander Kluge played an important role for me through his texts. But during this time my mother collected the film reviews from all the major German newspapers and magazines in the East and West and sent them to me. That could have cost her her job if it had come out. And in the dull boredom that usually surrounds you in the army, I memorized these articles, which had to be hidden for safety’s sake, and which were about things I couldn’t see and had to imagine. The films that were mentioned in these articles I saw only 10 years or more after that. By chance on TV: Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), by Scorsese, Lacombe, Lucien (1974), by Louis Malle, who is still important to me today, and a few more. Also I Was Nineteen (1968) by Konrad Wolf, which I have seen at least 10 times in my life. All works about outsiders.
At what point did you decide to pursue filmmaking in earnest?
I actually gave up the idea of making feature films when I joined DEFA [Film Studios] after the army and became Heiner Carow’s assistant. But Carow ended up sending me on a research mission to interview “young married couples” and get him documentary material for his new film, a film that the ministry didn’t give him permission to shoot, called Until Death Do Us Part (1979). Because of the prospects in the mid-to-late ’70s in the GDR no one expected anything from the film. The GDR produced 12-14 pieces a year, while GDR television was unacceptable to me. With documentary film it was a little different: there were sometimes unexplained alliances between authors and protagonists and there was the learned slave language of a dictatorship—even in the images and montage. It was told very indirectly, but then understood directly. It was not so much about messages as it was about the generation of thoughts.
The experience inspired me to make my own documentary. Why Make a Film About These People? was my first real film, a 16mm interview film about outsiders. The title was something my professor had asked me about the project. It was the first and also the last film I was able to finish in four years at the film school in Potsdam Babelsberg.
When I showed Heiner Carow the first version of the film he told me that I’d never get it past the authorities. So I stupidly changed the film, took out about a third of it, and abandoned the analytical intertitles. And then Carow was right when he told me after the second screening, “Thomas, you’ve become tame now.” That hit me hard. The tamed film was immediately banned from all public and university screenings and remained so until the end of the GDR. I started over and over again and my last attempt to finish my studies with a film—a documentary film about workers in a transformer factory—was finally destroyed, officially and with a protocol note.
Today, Why Make a Film About These People? is part of the “canon” of forbidden films in the GDR and is repeatedly brought out on appropriate occasions, leaving me with a stale taste. After my interrupted studies I sold ice cream, tore off cinema tickets, washed dishes, all sorts of things to make a living from anything. I didn’t get any parental support, which would have been easy. I then went to the radio as a “freelancer,” and in 1983 I made Documentary Without Pictures.
You’ve said that Heimat’s length “isn’t a statement, it’s just how the film ended up.” Can you talk a bit about editing the film and how you arrived at the structure (and length) we see now?
I need to add something first. It occupies me how seamlessly and surprisingly easy it was for me to use very private things as material for this film, which has been running through my head unclearly for over 20 years. The film is also a reflection on myself, or rather a public reflection on how I see things, trying to bring history and related stories to term—not dissolved into verbal reflections, but in the montage of the film’s elements in its present form, which is a provisional form. Nothing is final or finished. I can hardly articulate the mixture of instinctive decisions and the contradictory thoughts during the film’s preparation, shooting, and editing. Perhaps it is in reality simply, as Heiner Müller once said about his texts, “The text is wiser than the author.”
As with every film, it’s always the beginning that I’m looking for. It can take quite a while. I’ve known Chris Wright, the editor, for several years. I once supervised one of his films when he was a student at the film school in Babelsberg. It was interesting to notice our different cultural influences—he’s English—which are often difficult to reconcile during the editing process. But I think this encounter was productive for us. It occupied me with how one could tell a simultaneity of all times, all things, all events in general, in cinema.
One good thing we did was not start editing at the beginning of the film, but somewhere after the first third, with the story of Rosie: her first dalliance in the winter of 1944/’45 on a skiing holiday, and finally her complicated relationship with Udo across the borders of occupied Germany, from them getting to know each other in 1948 to their separation in 1952. A first great love, told in a self-contained way, with lots of other love stories in between. It was an advantage that the dialogue between the two was indirect and consisted of different things: Rosie’s diary and Udo’s letters. Udo talks to Rosie and Rosie talks to herself.
It was important to remain in the now, not to anticipate any result. We did not think of what would follow or precede [each section] in the overall narrative. I recorded all the texts as a dummy in the editing suite, whenever we needed something to get ahead. It remained like this throughout the entire editing process: no separate voice recording sessions. We just did it, without rehearsals: the endless love letters of Udo, the contrite monologues of my mother Rosie in her diary.
When we finished the chapter with Udo and Rosie and looked at it, it was a good one-and-a-half hours in length. By then it was clear to us that the film would be much longer than planned. But then we decided not to worry about it and to just continue working, piece by piece. There was something archaeological about it, the juxtaposition of fragments. The very different presences of the people in the overall material is a problem insofar as it is set and cannot be changed. But it is also a quality that one has to deal with. For example, there is practically no personal testimony by Wolfgang, my father, after the camp—that is, from 1945 until his death in 1987. Nothing about him. In the camp he speaks of himself for the last time. It’s only 20 years later, in a letter to the Rector of the University where he resigned as the Dean of the Faculty of Philosophy after a series of unspeakable proceedings in which he was reported and found guilty, that one might get an idea of his constitution. In the letter he does not use a title by name but rather a formulaic socialist greeting. The letter in its brief impersonality shows Wolfgang’s mental state precisely by hiding it in the coldest possible bureaucratic German, which expresses the greatest possible distance to its addressee.
This was good for the film in the end, coming right after the letters from the Nazi era, the lists, the disappearance of the family, the piles, the camp, the Holocaust. Life went on in a completely different way somewhere else, and so did the film. We eventually came back to the first chapter, at which time we decided things should begin with the 14-year-old Wilhelm’s essay. His reflections on the war would hardly have found the consistent form it now has if we had begun the editing process with this chapter. And it has been reworked again since then, with any protection for the audience now canceled out with the inclusion of the 20-minute rolling list of the names and addresses of the deported Viennese Jews. After the last list, which runs into black, we have Marika Rökk sing, ”Don’t look, don’t look / Just look straight ahead / And whatever comes / Don’t worry about it.” That’s how it should stay. Only after that did it become clear that the Little Red Riding Hood scene should come right at the beginning. Once upon a time…
Jordan Cronk is a critic and programmer based in Los Angeles. He runs Acropolis Cinema, a screening series for experimental and undistributed films, and is a member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.