Truth and Method: The Films of Thomas Heise

Heimat Is a Space in Time

By Michael Sicinski

“Archaeology is about Digging” is the title of an essay by Thomas Heise, included in the DVD booklet for several of his films, including the 2009 film Material, a key film in terms of raising Heise’s profile outside of Europe. In the essay, the filmmaker describes the circumstances surrounding the making of the films included on the disc, particularly those early works made while living in the GDR prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall. As Heise explains, the work of the documentarian under oppressive conditions entails a kind of double vision, since the scenes before him or her are seldom overt in terms of what they are revealing.

He writes, “In a dictatorship, the idea is to amass hidden stores of images and words, portraying the things that people living under the dictatorship might have actually experienced, but that could not necessarily be seen or heard. Then, when the dictatorship is no more, those images will have borne witness to it.” Since it is not always clear how society will progress (or devolve), one must be a bit of a packrat (or a mole, Heise’s own metaphor), keeping a substantial archive of documents whose full meaning will only be apparent later, in a kind of historical Nachträglichkeit.

Heise’s latest film, Heimat Is a Space in Time, is his longest to date. In just under four hours, Heise examines nearly 100 years of family history, pieced together from private correspondence, official documents, audio recordings, photographs, drawings, and other sorts of historical evidence. The film is, in the fullest sense, a Foucauldian project, in that it is both archeological and genealogical. In working with this strand of artifacts, Heise provides eyewitness testimony to the workings of 20th-century German history, first under the Third Reich, and then under the Stalinist regime of the GDR. But he also delineates intensely personal relationships: between parents and children, siblings, spouses, and dear friends. The question the film presents is not just how individuals were subject to the vicissitudes of history, but also how those broader structures, insidious as they were, worked to shape the very conditions under which personal bonds could form.

The film begins with a highly ambiguous opening shot, slowly panning up a thin, greenish-brown pole. What looks like the trunk of a young tree is in fact the post for a sign in the forest that reads “According to legend, here stood Grandmother’s house.” We then see painted standees of Red Riding Hood, a woodsman, and a wolf. None of this will be mentioned again in Heimat, but the images are suggestive. How do the mythic tales of Germania correspond to the actual families and lives that supposedly blossom forth from the homeland? The next image is a photograph of a little boy holding up the German tricolour, a flag that is just a bit bigger than him.

Next, we hear the reading of an essay that Heise’s grandfather Wilhelm wrote for a school assignment in 1912, three years before he would begin his studies at Humboldt University in Berlin. In it, young Wilhelm decries war as the preoccupation of bloodthirsty patricians who have no concern for the destruction it creates among the people of the world. After war, “the level of education suffers,” he wrote, “whilst superstition thrives in the soil of stupidity,” making future hatreds, and future wars, all the more likely.

After introducing his grandfather as a learned, humanistic man, Heise similarly introduces his grandmother, Edith Hirschhorn. Her and Wilhelm’s courtship began around 1922, and we hear letters the two wrote to one another, hear about Edith’s course of study at the Academy of Applied Arts in Vienna, see examples of her work, and learn that she and her family are Jewish. This fact will obviously put both the Hirschhorn and Heise families in the crosshairs of the Nazis, in somewhat different ways.

We also hear letters from Edith’s parents, Max and Anna, unreservedly welcoming Wilhelm into the family. During these passages, Heise shows us the rain-occluded view from the rear window of a tram moving through a Vienna street, and a U-bahn station with a couple passionately kissing. This is the primary aesthetic mode of Heimat: the relationships between the concrete information we are receiving and the visual track are often contrapuntal, evocative, but not denotative. In this regard, the film bears resemblance to other experimental documentaries that have used space and landscape as a kind of pushpin in a temporal map, indicating possible layers of activity that those specific spaces might have seen—in US filmmaking, for example, the work of James Benning, John Gianvito, or Deborah Stratman.

Near the conclusion of the first part of Heimat, in one of the film’s most intellectually compelling scenes, Heise presents on camera the rough draft, with multiple strikethroughs and X-outs, of a letter Wilhelm is writing in response to the local Reich Minister’s implementation of Paragraph 6 of the Civil Service Restoration Act against him. Heise reads every choice of word his grandfather weighed in his struggle to figure out how to protect himself and his “mixed-race” family from persecution. This is a key moment in Heimat, not just because it is the first instance of official trouble arising, but because the letter communicates the effect of the Nazis’ bureaucratic bullying, how matters of life and death become mere tasks to negotiate, endless and exhausting. (And as Heiner Müller’s 1992 essay at the end of the film makes clear with startling prescience, this tormented form of being, an existence without personhood, is today the plight of refugees, asylum seekers, and the undocumented.)

We hear trains beginning to move during this sequence, immediately followed by the single longest passage of the film. As Heise reads a series of increasingly desperate letters from Edith’s family, we see a slow crawl, from bottom to top, of a Nazi document listing the names of some of the many thousands of Viennese Jews who were sent to Eastern European ghettos between 1941 and 1942. Although the progression of the letters does not make it absolutely clear which family members were deported when, it is evident that the Hirschhorns were forced from their home, shoved into smaller quarters with other Jews, and eventually sent to their deaths. Edith’s sister Pepi, the only family member to avoid deportation, writes a heartbreakingly optimistic letter to Edith and Wilhelm. “Dad is undoubtedly in an old folks home, and Elsa somewhere busy.”

* * *

One of the reasons that it can be difficult to write a general essay about Thomas Heise’s films is because they tend to eschew generality. While they obviously share a distinct set of historical and political concerns, the films do not display a single dominant style. Rather, Heise seems to adapt his procedures to the inquiry at hand, letting the subject matter give shape to the documentary he’s making. Certain earlier films, such as Vaterland (2002, mostly shot in the ’80s), are primarily organized around interview footage, with some examination of the surrounding landscape. His Volkspolizei 1985 (1985, banned by the GDR) assumes a somewhat observational stance toward a social institution, and could be considered a sort of Eastern Bloc counterpart to the work of Frederick Wiseman. And Heise’s study of the rise of fascist skinhead culture following the end of the GDR, STAU – Jetzt geht’s los (1992), is a skilful articulation of these two modes.

If there is a Heise film that can be called “typical,” it might have to be Material, which compiles unused footage from other projects, or passages of film that for some reason did not evolve into completed projects. Material offers a compendium of Heise’s various modes of operation, while at the same time delivering a completely coherent vision of time and space. Beginning with a shot of children in what appears to be the courtyard of some public housing, there is immediately an ambiguity: they are playing and climbing on a large stack of metal pipes, but then they begin moving them, as if preparing to build a pipeline or (more likely) sell the metal on the black market. Who knows? But Heise is demonstrating a fundamental truth about the GDR. Life, work, and play are inextricably confused from a very early age, as a warped form of socialism limits the very horizons of subject formation.

Heise gradually lets us know that we are looking at a series of highly unofficial images from the final days of the GDR. Some are “ordinary,” and of a piece with other subjects Heise has documented in the past. For instance, early on we observe the tense artistic struggles of the Berliner Ensemble’s attempts to stage the premiere of Heiner Müller’s Germania Death in Berlin. Again, this resembles passages from latter-day Wiseman, aside from the intimate connection between Heise and Müller that defined the filmmaker’s early creative life. But for most of its running time, Material gives way to events far more extraordinary, as we observe the East German “Peaceful Revolution” from within. More specifically, Heise shows us what it looks like when a sovereign nation collapses, when its institutions begin to fail, and, perhaps most importantly, when citizens who have shared a sincere belief in an ideal, however imperfect, are suddenly stripped bare before the unforgiving court of historical judgment.

Much of Material calls to mind similar work by Sergei Loznitsa, but where Loznitsa’s films are edited compilations of films and videos that others have shot during the rush of revolutionary tumult, Material is comprised of Heise’s own footage of demonstrations in Alexanderplatz, workers’ speeches, demands for the dissolution of the Politburo, and real-time misapprehension of Egon Krenz as a champion of democratic reform. Later Heise shows us post-GDR demands for the resignation of politicians tainted with Stalinist/Stasi ties, a series of prison guards arguing for their essential innocence within the state apparatus, and prisoners themselves articulating their right to be freed in the post-revolutionary state.

What overwhelms the viewer of Material, and is the dominant subject of STAU, is the crisis of faith and betrayal that ordinary comrades felt, not only as the GDR collapsed but also as it continued to exist as a totalitarian state. Heise’s work is an archaeology of alternate truths and possibilities. We all know the dominant narrative of the triumphalist corporate West—what Heise shows instead is that, for many, the dream was always something else, whether we call it “socialism with a human face,” democratic socialism, true Marxism, or even utopia. There are entire generations of people whose dreams of a better way of life were shattered on the rocks of global capital. History owes them a hearing.

* * *

Near the end of the Nazi era, Heise’s grandparents, father, and uncle were sent to work camps for “mixed-race” Germans and others who had violated the Third Reich’s miscegenation laws. Heise has a fairly extensive archive of letters sent back and forth between his grandfather and the boys, who were interred at a labour camp in Zerbst. The letters appear in both Heimat and Vaterland, and Heise’s use of them in both films is interesting to note.

In Vaterland, we hear a number of the letters as we see tracking shots through the woods, showing us what the area around Zerbst looks like in 2002. There are remnants of the labour camp, but mostly it is overgrown with trees. In one of the most striking letters, from Wilhelm to young Wolfgang Heise, he advises his sons to keep their heads down and do as they’re told: “To put it bluntly, a dead person can no longer learn anything.” In Heimat, this episode in the family history reappears, and Heise revisits the spot where the labour camp once stood. Its most predominant feature now is a trio of wind turbines that cast a large, sweeping shadow over the surrounding forest.

What Vaterland does, however, using footage shot in the ’80s GDR, is to explore the town around the labour camp, to see what has become of this area in the intervening years. In contrast to Heimat’s 100-year longitudinal history, Vaterland represents more of a core sample, looking to see if the prior history of this landscape has somehow left traces on its present-day existence. Heise explores the nearby town of Straguth. Who lives there now, and what are their lives like? How were its occupants affected by the war? Does anything still exist of what happened to the Heises, not just in the landscape, but also in the fabric of this specific community?

Heise finds that the social centre of Straguth is a pub operated by Otto Natho, a gruff, pragmatic man who explains early on that his establishment happily served the Russian occupiers because, after all, their money was as good as anyone else’s, and really, the Germans and the Russians weren’t so different. Heise goes to the homes of several of Otto’s regular patrons for extended interviews, and we gradually learn that Straguth is solidly working class but on the skids economically, skews conservative, and is characterized by an omnipresent machismo. One man tells the story of going to prison for murder at 16 and having to find his place in the inmates’ pecking order, while another man speaks adoringly of his three-year-old daughter but insists that she obey him or there’ll be trouble.

Heise only occasionally asks questions of his subjects. He prefers to give them space to express who they are and what they think, without any overt judgment. Vaterland’s project isn’t as simplistic as “these are the same kinds of people who destroyed my family years ago.” Heise is instead interested in gathering a sense of how certain attitudes persist but inevitably express themselves differently as history shifts around them. If there is a clear commonality between then and now, it is one that is perhaps obvious but worth remembering nevertheless: people of good will can believe quite firmly in very disturbing things.

* * *

As is probably evident by now, Heise’s films, distinct though they may be, are in constant dialogue with one another. Although it can be said that the works of any artist form a sort of mutually informing intellectual web, I think this is uniquely true of Heise’s cinema. They are like points on a curve, provisional answers to the question of how best to interrogate a particular social problem, and whether to forge connections down through space or over across time—archaeologically, genealogically, or both at the same time.

So in some respects, Heimat Is a Space in Time is the film that Heise was always leading up to. By using his own family as the rough template for a century of German history, Heise “gets personal,” but at the same time treats this material as if it were any other archive. In an interview with Clause Löser on the occasion of Heimat’s world premiere in the 2019 Berlinale Forum, Heise describes his method: “Essentially, I act as if everything already took place some 2,000 years ago, where no one knows anything about the broader context of the time any more. These fragments are the only thing available and can be used to make some sort of picture, although there are many, many gaps between them. And these gaps can be filled in just by thinking.”

Heise is speaking specifically about his decision not to include a sort of family-tree graphic that would help a viewer keep all of the relationships clear in his or her mind as they watched. But more than this, the quote speaks to Heise’s actual presentation of the letters and other artifacts. Aside from the inclusion of dates, there are no “footnotes,” per se. Heise trusts his viewer to understand how the events described fit within the larger framework of German political events. And in fact, the discrepancy between family and broader history generates its own forms of suspense and tragedy.

After the end of WWII, the focus of the film shifts to Heise’s parents. His father, Wolfgang, was a philosophy professor; his mother, Rosemarie, was a writer and editor who appears to have been a fairly high-ranking member of the East German Writers’ Union, based on what I could glean from events narrated in the film. As is sometimes the case with academic couples, the two lived apart for some time, and so the film contains many letters between Wolfgang and Rosi.

In time, Wolfgang ran afoul of the Communist authorities, in particular because of his unwillingness to condemn three of his colleagues who had been judged ideologically impure. He lost his associate deanship, and by all accounts was subject to harassment by the Stasi for the remainder of his life. In the only departure from his overall method of sticking to family memorabilia, Heise includes an official document discussing his father’s status as a suspected enemy of the state.

Later on in the same part of the film, we learn that Wolfgang Heise was subject to pressure by his colleagues, and the government, to sign a letter protesting an article about GDR philosophy published by an Italian journal. When he refused, he fled Berlin for the village of Ahrenshoop, near the Baltic Sea. In an anguished letter from Rosi to Wolfgang, she acknowledges that she was forced to give his address to the members of the Philosophical Institute. “I didn’t want to give them your address,” she agonizes, while admitting “I just can’t judge what is right in this case.” Later, as the film shows us images of a demolished highway, we learn that Wolfgang still refused to sign, and in a subsequent letter, Rosi tells him she is proud of him, and knows he is frightened of the repercussions. “Come what may,” Rosi writes, “I feel thoroughly ready to stare steely into life’s tight-lipped countenance, as long as you are by my side, in whatever way possible.”

Despite having no choice, Rosi’s guilt at divulging Wolfgang’s whereabouts is palpable. But one of the overriding impressions one gets from Heimat, as with Material, is that virtually no one came away clean from life in the GDR. Admired intellectuals like Christa Wolf and Heise’s own mentor Heiner Müller have been accused of playing small roles as Stasi informers. Wolfgang Heise’s apparent ability to retain his integrity, and stay alive while doing it, is remarkable, though shifts in the state apparatus, as well as sheer luck, were clearly factors.

If there is a single moment in Heimat Is a Space in Time that could somehow serve as an epigram or even a thesis statement for such a sprawling film, it comes from a passage in Rosi’s diary. She writes: “I still recall passing through a pine grove, with the oblique slant of the autumnal sunbeams, when Wolfgang said we need to be clear about one thing: this State, like any State, is an instrument of domination, and its ideology, like all ideology: false consciousness. We stood still. I clearly recall asking: ‘So what should we do?’ We were silent for some time until he finally replied: ‘Remain decent.’”

Müller referred to Wolfgang Heise as “the only true philosopher of the GDR,” and his student, the dissident folk singer Wolf Biermann, sang of him as “my GDR-Voltaire.” If we look to Thomas Heise’s films as a continuation of that example, what do they tell us? Not only that we must understand broad historical events in terms of the traumatic affect and ruptures of habitus that they wreak on ordinary people. Especially now, with economic and political uncertainty thrusting so many into the arms of neo-fascist tribalism, Heise’s cinema provides a challenge, a working method. How do we fight against conditions under which it is no longer possible to remain decent? Sicinski Michael