Dir.: Thomas Heise, Documentary; Germany/Austria 2019, 218 min.
Writer/director Thomas Heise, born 1955 in —what was then East-Berlin — shares his personal history of his homeland and Austria from 1912 to the present.
His distinctive voice shines through as he digs into family archives, testimonials and remnants of the indescribable horrors and upheavals of 20thcentury Germany. This an epic work that serves a memorial to those who are no longer with us, and an opportunity for future generations to visit the grim past of the holocaust.
His narration is measured but engaging, and accompanied by extensive black-and-white travelling shots, showing the places of remembrance as they look today. There is something quietly contemplative about these sequences that explore trains, railways and stations, woods and lost places, almost like forgotten parts of a ghost town. Told in five chapters (with decreasing lengths) Heimat is extremely German in flavour, melancholic in tone and with a pedantic tendency for detail – hence the running time of nearly four (rewarding) hours.
Heimat starts in vibrant colour, then eschews it for good: the fairy tale of Little Red Riding Hood is shown as a taster for the family conflicts to come: the greedy wolf looking for his victims. The cut-outs in the wood ask questions: why did the mother send the little girl out into the dangerous woods?, and who is the good hunter who made rebirth possible. Here, as later, the camera shows people (and art-objets) from their feet travelling upwards, sometimes surprised that there is actually a head – one sculpture is even missing its cranium.
It all begins with a school essay by Heise’s grandfather Wilhelm, fourteen years old in 1912. He he outs himself as a radical pacifist. He later climbs out of poverty into the safe middle-class position of teacher, but his marriage to Edith, a Jewish socialist from Vienna, brings him “Berufsverbot” under the Nazis. His early retirement at forty, seems to fly in the face of his letters claiming loyalty to the regime. Edith, a sculptor, would later find herself in a concentration camp, but this was nothing compared to the fate of the rest of her family in Vienna.
In letters to Berlin we learn how the family is forced from their generous flat, into a cramped one room, with no coal to heat the freezing winter of 1941/42. A good day is when, “the postman does not bring the feared letter, stating that the family has to come to the “Sammelstelle”, where they are forced into wagons meant for animals, and deported to Poland, mainly Lodz. Edith’s father Max runs out of tobacco, also forbidden to Jews, and is forced to suck his pipe. When their long deported friends and neighbours, stop writing, Max and his family hope they are just too busy in Lodz. Heise reads these grim letters as the Vienna deportation lists appear before our eyes: in alphabetical order, the right-hand header stating the name of the extermination camp. Just reader these lists is sheer torture. And the trains, the ordinary ones, are still running all the time, before and after the name of the victims are unveiled.
Edith and Wilhelm saws their two sons deported: Wolfgang and his brother are sent to the Forced Labour Camp Zerbst, which looks today like a desolated airfield, a “Kulisse” for the DEFA-Documentaries of Thomas Heise, who all ended up in the “safety” of the archive. Then there is the decade-long letter exchange between a certain Udo, who lives in West-Germany, and tries to convince a certain Rosemarie Balker – he had kissed her twice before emigrating – to join him in the West. Their exchange is illuminating: neither of them is convinced they are getting the ‘real deal’ in their different sides of Germany. Udo can see the footprints of all the high-ranking Nazis whereas Rosemarie (who would go on to be a Romance scholar and marry Thomas’ father Wolfgang, a lecturer of Philosophy) experiences the widening gulf between propaganda and reality in the GDR. Both parents became victims of the Stasi – even though Rosemarie had informed herself at the beginning – and they became friends with the playwright Heiner Müller, the writer Christa Wolff and the singer Wolf Biermann, one of Wolfgang’s students. With his father dead, and his mother dying, Thomas Heise now feels safest in the past.
Heimat is a Space in Time is history, cultural and personal: when Marika Rökk sings a morale-boosting song during the first years of the war, we cannot get the Vienna deportation lists out of our heads. Despite its extensive running time, the documentary becomes compelling: we wants to read more letters, to learn more about what happened. The tragedy of the two Germanys in unification is clear for all to see: twins bound together, now forced to come to terms with their past. Heise’s intensity often belies the aesthetic form. And even though he denied in an interview that the film is his “Trauerarbeit”, it is exactly that. AS
NOW ON RELEASE NATIONWIDE | PREMIERED AT DOCLISBOA 2019