September 17, 2020  (Web Review)

Heimat Is a Space in Time

Icarus Films, 218 min., not rated, DVD: $29.98, Apr. 14

Reviewer rating: 2.5/4

Thomas Heise’s epic-length documentary is essentially an experimental film combining voiceover, archival material and contemporary footage in a politically charged meditative essay about the experiences of the director’s family over the course of twentieth-century German history. A prologue refers to the Red Riding Hood fable, suggesting that danger always lurks behind apparent placidity, before Heise reads from an anti-war essay penned in 1912 by his grandfather Wilhelm, then a precocious student, set against photographs of the boy and his family. Europe is soon plunged into World War I, but the film passes over the conflict obliquely, concentrating on Wilhelm’s romance with Edith Hirschhorn, a Jewish art student in Vienna, presented again through excerpts from their letters. Soon the relationship is overwhelmed by the rise of Nazism, and in a stunning half-hour sequence the screen is filled with seemingly endless pages of a typewritten record of the Viennese Jews deported to death camps in 1941-42 as Heise reads from letters written by the increasingly terrified members of Edith’s family while the genocidal horror escalated. This harrowing segment ends with a black screen and shots of the ruins of a camp, accompanied by a contemporary pop song advising Germans “not to look, and never mind.” After a segment dealing with the time Wilhelm and his sons spent in internment camps at World War II’s end, the film shifts to the life of Thomas’ father Wolfgang, a professor of philosophy who fell afoul of the East German government. Letters and documents—including Stasi reports—document his attempts to stave off professional demotion as a result of his refusal to hew to demands for ideological purity, but once again the emphasis is on the personal: the greater portion of the narration is composed of letters and diaries written by Wolfgang and his wife Rosemarie, a literary scholar, which detail not only their mutual respect but also rifts within the marriage. (Thomas reads impassively from letters exchanged between Rosemarie and a lover named Udo.) Toward the close the film turns its focus on Thomas himself, who found his filmmaking stifled by the communist GDR until the fall of the Berlin Wall. But the implication is that societal structures are always means of control no matter what form government might take, and the ultimate message is encapsulated in Wolfgang’s remark that an individual’s responsibility is simply to act decently toward others. Heise’s film is elliptical, leaving the viewer to fill in gaps in the records, and offers virtually nothing in the way of explicit context or analysis. It can also try one’s patience with its long, languid shots of moving trains—a motif rich with meaning for the Nazi era—and outdoor footage. Moreover, the employment of white subtitles against light backgrounds often leaves them illegible. Despite the longueurs, however, Heise’s film casts a powerful cumulative spell, and while it is not for everyone, some will find it mesmerizing. Extras include a fifteen-minute Q&A with Heise at the New York Film Festival and an illustrated booklet. A strong optional purchase. Aud: C, P. (F. Swietek