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The 63-year-old German film-maker and dramatist Thomas Heise has created what may possibly come to be seen as his masterpiece. I was sometimes captivated but often frustrated by this epic essay-film, a meditation on Germany and his own family history that is stark, fierce, austerely cerebral and almost four hours long.
Using letters and journals from his parents and grandparents (his father was the philosopher and academic Wolfgang Heise, his grandfather the literary critic and teacher Wilhelm Heise), he recounts an agonised story of his own Jewish background, and his forebears’ experience of antisemitism in the Nazi era and then later a queasily similar pattern of bullying from the Communist party authorities in East Germany.
But what Heise does is simply read these documents aloud in voiceover – in an uncompromisingly flat, affectless tone – while his camera will show static monochrome shots of fields, forests, ruined buildings and, perhaps most disturbingly, railway lines. Very rarely are human figures spotted. There is a long sequence in which his camera simply pans out a chilling Nazi document showing the list of Jewish people in Berlin who are to be taken away. It certainly has a cumulative, mesmeric, oppressive effect, although exactly what this effect is in total I’m still not sure.
It could be that the title intends an echo of Edgar Reitz’s epic movie trilogy Heimat, although Heimat Is a Space in Time is something that nullifies conventional dramatic impersonation, and this is occasionally a bit obtuse, especially when we have Heise’s male voice reading a letter from a woman. It even felt sometimes like Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, only without the faces, just the stark, even inert backgrounds.
I did smile, weirdly, once, when Wolfgang’s wife Rosie writes to him and says: “Nimm das nicht so tragisch; sei doch nicht so schrecklich Deutsch!” (“Don’t be so tragic, don’t be so dreadfully German about it!”) It is a dreadfully German piece of work. That is part of its power.
• Heimat Is a Space in Time is released in the UK on 22 November.
Source: The Guardian
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