“I Tried to Take a Look at These Things from a Distant Future”: Thomas Heise on his TIFF-Premiering Berlin Doc, Heimat is a Space in Time
Winner of the Caligari Film Prize at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, Heimat is a Space in Time is German documentarian Thomas Heise’s absorbing look at 20th-century history in his homeland via his own family’s artifacts — most notably astonishingly intimate letters that sweep us from the rise of Nazism, to the Cold War division of the country, to life on the Stasi-controlled side of the Berlin Wall. Three generations of firsthand accounts, read in unobtrusive voiceover, are gracefully interwoven with family photos and archival images to create a nearly three-and-a-half-hour cinematic epic — one that unfolds in digestible parts like a great novel.
Filmmaker took the opportunity to catch up via email with Heise (and his English-translating producer Heino Deckert) prior to the doc’s North American premiere in the Wavelengths section of the Toronto International Film Festival (September 6 and 15).
Filmmaker: So what convinced you to make this film in the first place? Old letters do not seem like an obvious starting point for a cinematic exploration.
Heise: “A black hole is a group of events you can’t get very far away from,” Stephen Hawking once said somewhere. The question of what led me to make this film never arose. I’ve made a lot of films about complicated family relationships — about other families, not my own. I’ve done a lot of long biographical interviews, features for the radio, texts, and even a play about people in National Socialism. Also an original audio feature about a juvenile coming out of prison, edited from investigation interview files. This is in the GDR – since the mid-’70s.
There was an earlier attempt to get closer to my own history, my film Vaterland (Fatherland) from 2001. And Vaterland is already really a second attempt, after my very first one from 1988, which I could not complete at that time except for some video material which I then used in 2001.
So I can’t really give you a concrete answer to this question, because it had been self-evident to me for a long time that I would do this. It wasn’t clear to me in which way, but it is, so to speak, an ancient story that I have been carrying around with me for a long time.
All my work before is actually part of it. For example, a conversation with an old actor, stretching over days. He was in the Dachau concentration camp, where he performed plays in front of other prisoners and guards. Widerstand und Anpassung — Überlebensstrategie (Resistance and Adaptation — Survival Strategy) is the title. It is also about the clinch between revolution and counterrevolution. As well as Hitler’s pact with Stalin — their crimes. What does a communist prisoner and block elder do with his position, which places him between the other prisoners and the SS? “Remain clean” was his answer. It’s the ride on the razor blade.
Or Schweigendes Dorf (Silent Village), a story about a train that came from a concentration camp at the end of the War in mid-April 1945. It stopped on its way north for three days with 6,000 captured women in a tiny village and then continued. Two years later they found bodies buried at the station. I had tried for a long time to find out what had happened, but in reality I had found only the silence, the forgetting, the twisting.
In the end I found myself in a final repository for radioactive waste, that place that had once been the concentration camp. Discovered underground, in a hall of the salt mine with knee-deep paper covering the ground, were books with the names of prisoners, technical drawings of the underground production facilities for miracle weapons, and so on. Nobody wanted to know about that. In the GDR it couldn’t become a film, so it became a play. It didn’t attract much attention. What remains of it in the present is very little. The exposition in Vaterland says, ”A film is like the digging of a hole. If one could dig in spiral form. And dig a black hole.” This is still true. Heimat is a space in time. And it doesn’t only apply to the time back then. It applies to the time after that. And to the never-ending present.
Filmmaker: Watching the film felt to me like trying to put together pieces of an unfinished puzzle, which is why it’s so riveting. Besides being divided into several parts, the doc consists of narrated letters, archival footage, personal photos — not to mention multiple storylines. So how did you decide on the final structure?
Heise: First of all, there’s no decision. It’s a process. “Unfinished puzzle” describes it quite well, but there are no punched particles. They are fragments, nothing is whole. It doesn’t always fit and never completely. There remain holes.
The structure follows the material, these fragments or shards in the desert. And the possibilities, like the limits of a precise, but also blurred, open form of narration. I tried to take a look at these things from a distant future. If it were to hold, I would call it leaving traces. It has to do with archaeology.
Some of the things were always in my head when I thought about the movie. Also fragments of thoughts — or unclear thoughts, like using the original transport lists from the Viennese letters with the singing of Marika Rökk. Or from a film from 1944, which my father had to watch in his camp until the redemptive alarm. “Schau nicht hin schau nicht her, schau nur geradeaus.” (Don’t look here, don’t look there, just look straight ahead.)
The motion of the film leads from the thoughts about the War, a school essay by the boy Wilhelm Heise, on to Heiner Müller and then to the twenty-seven-year-old text written by someone who has just become a father. Die Küste der Babaren (The Coast of the Barbarians), another war. Also in connection with the assertion of Mecklenburg in a dusty South American landscape, which was shot for my film Sonnensystem (Solar System) but not used in it.
Not to mention the question of how to explain “this situation” to your child. The picture, the passing dusty landscape, again refers to Der Mann im Fahrstuhl (The Man In The Elevator), a text in Heiner Müller’s play Der Auftrag (The Mission). Ostkreuz (Eastern Cross) too is material that was ultimately shot for this film, and not for Berlin 24, the context for which it was created. I always knew it belonged in this film. That’s why I made it. I had no idea for what exactly, except that it belonged to this film.
There are big gaps in the course of history. There is no narrator for a very long time. He simply appears at some point. First as a character, then as an anonymous person, and finally as a public “I.” The rest is guessable, or not.
Filmmaker: “Epic” is certainly one word that comes to my mind when describing this film. So what was the production process like? How many years were you working on this?
Heise: The film was in my head, constantly changing, certainly since the end of the ’80s, yet always in the GDR. No title or idea, but a diffuse commission.
It dragged on like that. Then I was alone and it went quickly. Around one year of preparation, transcription of letters and documents, etc. About 25 days of shooting in a row, then sound and editing preparation, then about 12 weeks until the first rough cut, including the majority of sound recordings. A free weekend, then further into the details.
Then the exchange of the initial short deportation list sequence for the final scans, which are stoically rolled out in front of you for more than 20 minutes. That was relatively late. I assembled this scene purely according to text, then ordered the lists, underlined the surnames in them, and then synchronized image and sound. We built this, including Marika Rökk and the pile of wood and stone, afterwards. Blindly, without any control. Then we took a look at it once and did not change a thing. It was striking. And the end, the “I,” that also came at the end.
I am now very much looking forward to some double performances of Heimat is a Space in Time together with my film Material from 2009 in Madrid, St. Petersburg and Berlin. Material is a result of observations and a montage of fragments created over several years between 1988 in the theatre, 1989 on the street, and the demolition of the Palace of the Republic, where today the Imperial Palace is being rebuilt. “You can think of history as linear. But really, it’s a heap” it says in Material. It is about silence and first words. Heimat is a Space in Time is actually about me, a figure that emerges from others — or remains. It’s another first attempt to speak. But this Heimat is a heap, too.
Filmmaker: In addition to being a longtime documentarian and teacher your resume includes theater and audio drama. So how do these other disciplines influence your film work (and vice-versa)?
Heise: Sometimes more, sometimes less, and it has to do with the specific situation in which I work. The film Imbiss Spezial, for example, has so many sound levels because I had tried for a long time to get into radio, and had done some things there which were not finished or not broadcast. This led to the assurance of the head of the radio drama department that he wouldn’t work with me ever again. But then I used what I had learned at the Academy of Arts, where I was able to make a film again as a graduate for my master class.
The fact that I wanted stereo sound for a documentary film, however, resulted in laughter at that time. Theater, on the other hand, gives you an enormous feeling for the space in which something is happening. This results in ideas for camera and narrative in a film. And vice-versa. But I think about it less, since I know that it is like it is, that one always touches the other. Then I just let it happen.
Filmmaker: I read that your first film was not only banned, but produced entirely with materials bought on the black market. So what was life like being a filmmaker behind the Berlin Wall? I know there was quite an underground film scene in the GDR (even if those of us in the West can name few films from that era).
Heise: This assertion is somewhere on the internet and is often copied. It haunts me, because it is an entertaining, apparently credible remark about the East, which incidentally also includes its terror. (Does it really say “entirely?” Who wrote this poem?)
In 1980 I bought about four 16mm reels from a (now-deceased) television cameraman because I wanted more material for my second journalistic film exercise at the film academy than was planned by the school and distributed to the students. C’est tout.
It was a bit small-time criminal, because the purchased material was stolen somewhere, but completely nonpolitical, even if it somehow fits the Wall and the oppression. I had put myself in a better position than my fellow students. Of course, we were also competitors. But the later political ban on the public screening of Wozu denn über diese Leute einen Film (Why Make a Film About These People) had nothing to do with that. The reality shown and lived in the film was the dangerous part. “This reality should not exist.”
I had nothing to do with the underground film scene, as you call it. I am a loner and was my own underground. The GDR was my material, without end, even if none of it came out to the public in its time.