Film

How One Family’s Story Shapes Our Understanding of 20th-Century Germany

With Heimat Is a Space in Time, Thomas Heise explores how personal experience shapes the “objective” past.

From Heimat Is a Space in Time (all images courtesy New York Film Festival)

How can our understanding of history and reality be enhanced through an intensification of subjectivity, thereby altering the relationship between the two? Thomas Heise explores this question through Heimat Is a Space in Time, a three-hour, 40-minute recantation of his family history. It consists of Heise reading his ancestors’ letters and diaries over his own contemporary footage of landscapes, trains, and documents. The relationships between the sounds and images are by turns ironic, contrapuntal, associative, and sometimes incongruous.

The documentary tracks German history from the onset of World War I to life after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The title hints at the resulting political complexity. Heimat, sometimes translated roughly to “homeland,” refers not just to geography but the emotional ties and culture associated with it. It was Hitler’s word for what he wanted to protect, but it was also popular with exiles and dissidents to describe feelings of displacement and alienation due to war and the division (and later reunification) of Germany.

From Heimat Is a Space in Time

Accusations of dryness and academia are bound to assail any such description, but one of the most remarkable things about Heimat is how dramatic it is. After elegantly introducing us to Wilhelm Heise (the director’s grandfather), his eventual wife Edith Hirschhorn, and her family purely through the ordering of letters, the film divulges their Nazi-era correspondences. Over the course of 24 minutes, these missives gradually move from annoyed to desperate as the camera pans down documents listing the names of Viennese Jews deported to death camps. It is both aesthetically daring and narratively riveting, and the film maintains this feeling for the nearly three hours that follow.

It is difficult to tell stories of people who did not expect the Nazis to go as far as they did, or of foreigners who doubted the seriousness of Hitler’s militancy; tragic irony always threatens to overwhelm the text. Heise does not find a way to avoid that irony (as if it could ever truly be avoided), but he does weaponize it for his own purpose, demonstrating how the forces of history shape how we maintain personal relationships. As time passes, letters transform from materialist to philosophical (Heise’s father was a renowned philosopher), but that shift only complicates the relationship between the subjective and objective. In the midst of history seeming to “restart” some 30 years after Francis Fukuyama declared its end, one could hardly imagine a more productive film.

Heimat Is a Space in Time screens October 4 and 6 at Film at Lincoln Center(165 W. 65th Street), as part of the 57th New York Film Festival.

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