Heimat is a Space in Time (2019) ‘TIFF’ Review – Seeking Shelter within Memory while Exorcising Ghosts of the Past

Thomas Heise’s sprawling epic, Heimat is a Space in Time, charts the progress and gradual disintegration of a family spanning over three generations, which is juxtaposed against nearly 100-years of bloody German history. Through a series of meticulously narrated letters and diary entries ― set against gorgeous black-and-white imagery of modern-day Germany ― it explores the uniquely-German concept of “Heimat“, which refers to everyone’s personal idea of “homeland”, something that Heise envisions here as a shelter within the memory of his family and thus, by extension, of his nation’s painful past.

Heise begins his documentary with his grandfather Wilhelm’s diary entries from 1912, when he was only 14 years old, reflecting upon the nature of war and all the strife it brings, something that naturally becomes a guiding theme throughout the rest of the film. Then we shift to a job résumé written by a woman named Edith, who goes on to marry Wilhelm later on, detailing her own life up until that point of time. Wilhelm and Edith would soon meet and get engaged, all of which is gradually revealed through a series of letters exchanged between them and Edith’s parents (who unfortunately happened to be Jewish). By presenting these correspondences unabridged, Heise lets us into a lot of intimate and trivial details that together bring to life a bygone era with ferocious authenticity.

The string of conversations continue and soon take a ghastly turn, in what has to be the most memorable and deeply-unsettling segment of the entire film. As the camera scrolls slowly down a huge list of names and addresses, Heise narrates letters sent to the newly-married Wilhelm and Edith by the latter’s parents and siblings, detailing the growing difficulties they have been facing under Hitler’s reign. They talk of Jews being denied tobacco first and then even basic supplies such as meat and coal, and also of an ominous letter being mailed to Jewish people, ordering them to gather to be transported to Poland.

Heimat is a Space in Time
Heimat is a Space in Time (Credits: Icarus Films)

Suddenly we realize that the list of names flashing by on the screen is one of the many notorious deportation lists, and the names and addresses belong to the innocent people whose lives are about to be devastated. As the letters grow more agitated and fearful, the language slowly morphing from defiance to a kind of numb acceptance, we understand what’s coming and which names are inevitably going to appear on the list. Thomas Heise captures the paralyzing dread of living as a Jew during the holocaust, waiting for your own death-sentence to be mailed to your doorstep, with one stunning 24-minute-long unbroken sequence.

That’s the last time we hear from Edith’s family as the film moves on to letters from her two children Hans and Wolfgang, writing about their experiences in military camps, which marks the end of the first of five chapters into which this narrative is divided. The next segment picks up with diary entries of a certain Rosemarie, who is actually the director’s mother, and her various affairs with young men (notably an intellectual law-student named Udo) as well as her own first-hand accounts of bombings in Dresden. The remainder of the film follows her eventual marriage to Wolfgang Heise and her two children, Andreas and Thomas, the latter being the filmmaker himself.

Heimat is a Space in Time
Heimat is a Space in Time (Credits: Icarus Films)

Thomas Heise’s narration seems almost deliberately monotonous, so as to not manipulate our emotions by coloring the events, ensuring that we measure the devastating contents of the diaries and letters without being prejudiced by his personal familial affections. Interestingly, he presents modern-day shots of Germany in black-and-white, while the old photographs and letters are reproduced in color, as if in a bid to reach for the past through the present and vice-versa. The contemporary and the bygone era collide, leading to a complex interplay between images and words, memories and dreams, optimism and pessimism within the shifting cinematic spaces Heise conjures.

Therefore the hypothetical assertation of the title ― Heimat is a Space in Time ― is realized by seeking refuge within the fragments of a time period that is now lost, essentially, apart from its reconstruction through Heise’s imagery. He mirrors the pronounced emotional and psychological scar tissue leftover by the two World Wars ― and especially his nation’s fate during and after them ― through deep cracks and crevasses across barren contemporary landscapes, in a uniquely wholesome examination of historical accountability and the flow of time as building blocks for his own, very personal, idealization of ‘Heimat’. Mesmerizing visuals of life and desolation are contrasted, in long patient takes, to evoke the emotions we assign to various social upheavals throughout the course of history.

Heimat is a Space in Time
Heimat is a Space in Time (Credits: Icarus Films)

Through the film, Heise also strives to reveal his own core philosophical makeup, subtly littering the aural narrative with the ideas and beliefs he grew up with on a regular basis. Like the audio recording of his father’s conversation with dramatist Heiner Müller where they discuss how “intensified objectivity can be grasped through an intensification of subjectivity”, something that the director attempts with this very documentary becoming an investigation of his family heritage and origins, and thus a look at his own self. His editing finds relevancy between the images and the narration accompanying them, channeling the horrors of wartime life unfiltered while letting us sink deeper and deeper into the pile of letters and diary pages. As the gradual erosion of a family and a national identity moves towards its conclusion, Heise seems to have exorcised the ghosts of his past with resonating pathos and salvaged whatever remains of his Fatherland’s disintegrated legacy.

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