'Heimat Is a Space in Time': Film Review | TIFF 2019

Courtesy of TIFF
Kindred spirit.

German filmmaker Thomas Heise delves into his family's (and country's) tortured past in this transfixing documentary.

One of the most famous cinematic fairy tales, The Wizard of Oz, begins in black-and-white and transitions to color. German filmmaker Thomas Heise takes the opposite tack in his three-and-a-half-hour documentary, Heimat Is a Space in Time, opening with a verdant color sequence (one that itself references a beloved folk story — Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf), then shifting, with little exception over the rest of its running time, to stark black-and-white visuals.

The monochromatic palette pairs well with Heise's own narration, which is mesmerically flat and unaffected, even when he's speaking as different characters. Heise moves through history (in this case, that of his country and of his family) like a dispassionate archivist, voicing both facts and feelings with little-to-no emotional inflection. It's a slow accumulation of people and experiences long gone; do yourself a favor and read the estimable Michael Sicinski's CinemaScope article on Heise for a primer on his career and this film's place as his magnum opus.

Heimat certainly has the feel of a summative work, touching on such macro events as World War I, the rise and fall of Nazism and German discontent, economic and otherwise, before, during and after the Berlin Wall. In micro counterpoint, Heise tells the story of his own flesh and blood, beginning with a reading of an antiwar essay written by his grandfather, Wilhelm, for a school assignment in 1912. Wilhelm's naive (though not at all misguided) pacifism makes for a sobering complement to all the unrest that follows.

In an extraordinary early sequence, which takes up about 25 minutes, Heise reads a number of letters between family members (his grandmother Edith Hirschhorn is the recurring figure) while pages and pages of typewritten Nazi documents scroll glacially across the screen. The papers contain names, addresses and dates, all relating to Jews sent to East European ghettos throughout the early 1940s. The missives Heise reads increase in desperation (though his voice, again, never rises above dry objectivity) and eventually segue into resignation. The sense of a totalitarian regime squashing out even an involuntary desire to resist is palpable, and as much applicable to now as to then. (The past, per Faulkner, is not even past.)

One of the few instances where color seeps back into the film is when Heise himself becomes a part of the story. A childhood photo of he and his brother Andreas has the tinted look of a silent-film frame, and it resonates provocatively with an anecdote Heise relates about a time when he and Andreas, as teenagers, went into a pitch-black movie theater to make out with some girls and unwittingly ended up kissing each other. (Cinephilia coupled with a shameful taboo.) Quick enough, the black-and-white imagery returns, as if adulthood, in all its sentience and sin, means inevitable loss — of callowness, yes, but also the vivacity that can help us be more than individual or collective cogs.

Not a single image or sound is absent this sense of deprivation. One repeated visual: a car shuttle train moving between unspecified stations, sometimes with, sometimes without cargo. And aurally, the film tends toward the subtly dissociative, as with the distant industrialized din that tends to play over numerous serene landscape shots. Heise is undoubtedly paralleling commercial chattle with the human freight that's been exploited, at different points in history, by those in authority.  

How to resist? Perhaps merely through perseverance and communication. Heise's father Wolfgang, a well-known utopian philosopher often under siege by the powers-that-be, has a heady debate with a colleague that is preserved here via audio recording and an evocative series of still photos. There is also a sublime found moment in which the epistolary romance between Heise's grandparents (read in the director's typically reserved tones) is contrasted with a beguiling present-day visual of a young couple kissing tenderly beneath a U-bahn station. If there's any hope to be found, it's in the conversations and connections that develop between people despite the tyrannies of their respective times.

Production companies: Ma.ja.de. Filmproduktion, Navigator Film
U.S. distributor: Icarus Films
Director: Thomas Heise
Screenwriter: Thomas Heise

Cinematography: Stefan Neuberger
Editing: Chris Wright
Producer: Heino Deckert
Sound: Johannes Schmelzer-Ziringer
Publicist: GAT PR
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Wavelengths)

218 minutes