Heimat is a Space in Time: a sprawling history of 20th-century Germany

Director Thomas Heise’s family take centre-stage in this intimate essay film that documents a turbulent time with a warm and personal touch

Jordan Cronk

Heimat is a Space in Time (2019)

‘Heimat’, meaning ‘home’ or ‘homeland’ in German, is a uniquely thorny term. With roots stretching back to the 11th century and no exact English translation, the word has taken on many different and conflicting connotations over the years. Most damagingly, it was promulgated during WWII by the Nazis, who transposed its core tenets – based around a love and attachment to one’s native land – into a nefarious, nationalistic belief system that called for the persecution, and eventually extermination, of all those who posed a threat to the ‘purity’ of Germany’s ethnic identity.

With his latest feature, Heimat Is a Space in Time, veteran documentarian Thomas Heise taps the term’s more metaphoric dimensions, while situating it within a highly personal survey of the Federal Republic’s chequered past. Stretching over four generations, from the years just before WWI to the present day, this at once epic and intimate essay film charts Heise’s family history against the backdrop of the larger cultural and political events that have shaped both the country’s legacy and its collective sense of self. Utilising letters, photographs, drawings and various other archival materials to trace these entwined histories, Heise narrates the trials and tribulations of 20th-century Germany in a rich and engrossing voiceover that imbues the words and experiences of his relatives with an urgency undimmed by the passage of time.

Running 218 minutes, the film unfolds in sprawling yet largely chronological fashion, beginning with the story of Heise’s greatgrandparents, Wilhelm and Edith (a German and a Viennese Jew, respectively), whose courtship as young adults studying between Berlin and Vienna in the 1920s was soon threatened by the Nazis. As Heise reads from their handwritten letters, we see corresponding images of presentday Mitteleuropa. These passages, shot in high-contrast black-and-white, link past and present through tranquil landscape imagery and numerous shots of trains crisscrossing the countryside, a motif that grows increasingly troubling as the story dovetails with the rise of the Third Reich. In one extended and harrowing sequence, Heise reads a series of distressed letters from Edith’s parents as page upon page of Nazi documents scroll vertically down the screen, listing the names of thousands of Viennese Jews who were sent to the death camps.

After the war, Heise’s ‘mixed-race’ family was displaced across a newly divided Germany. During the Cold War, in the decades leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall, successive generations attempted to rebuild and reconcile this lineage in the wake of unspeakable tragedy.

Heise’s father, a philosophy professor named Wolfgang, becomes a prominent figure in Heimat’s second half. At one point we hear an audio recording of him and East German playwright Heiner Müller discussing Bertolt Brecht and the intersection of art and politics in contemporary Europe; a later epistolary correspondence between Wolfgang and Heise’s mother Rosi, a well-regarded author, fills in details about their relationship after the former is forced to flee Berlin for refusing to condemn anti-communist ideology and sign a document protesting a controversial news article about the inner workings of the GDR. As he does throughout this quietly remarkable film, Heise offers up these humble acts of humanity as a simultaneous testament to faith and perseverance, traits that will remain necessary as long as history insists on repeating itself.


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