Heimat is a Space in Time

Documentary maker Thomas Heise provides a rare insight into the lives of his ancestors.

In his new essay-style film, documentary filmmaker Thomas Heise (Vaterland) has produced an exploration of his family through time, using a compilation of woven imagery, language and sound.

Heimat is a Space in Time, which won the best feature prize in the international competition at Vision du Réel and the Caligari Film Prize at the 2019 Berlinale, examines the lives of Thomas Heise’s ancestors as well as almost 100 years of German history, and how the latter effected the lives and relationships of Heise’s family members over time. Covering a series of intertwined narratives, the documentary starts in World War I and goes on to cover the turmoil of the Second World War, the effects of Soviet control over East Germany and takes us through the Fall of the Berlin Wall up to 2014.

Steering away from a typical documentary style structure, Thomas Heise has neglected the use of titles and there are no talking head interviews or appearances on screen from Heise. With little explanation of context, we are instead provided with a selection of letters, diary extracts, personal notes, poems and essays written by different members of Heise’s family. From first loves and the births of new children, to separation, mental illness and the effects of war, the deeply personal written pieces examined in the film are read by Heise himself, and present a fascinating window into the past and how these people were affected by the ever-changing political and social climate in 20th century Germany.

At 218 minutes, the documentary is a long watch. However, it could be argued that its length is necessary to get an accurate understanding of the personalities, relationships and events taking place through Heise’s narration. The film is split into four parts and we are first introduced to Thomas Heise’s grandfather, Wilhelm Heise. Opening with an essay written by Wilhelm in 1912, Heise reads aloud his grandfather’s opinions on conflict. ‘How much misery and destitution has been wrought by a recklessly started war?’. Wilhelm’s statements at the beginning of the documentary eerily foreshadow the devastating impact war has on his family throughout the 20th century.

Accompanying the Director’s narration, is a series of different shots and sequences – all in black and white. We are provided with a selection of archive photographs of Heise’s family members; however, the main body of the film is made up of shots of different locations in Germany. From crumbling train stations, forests, piles of rubble and abandoned buildings, to busy city streets with people going about their daily lives, there is a significant focus on change and the passing of time. Each shot has a soft background noise of either birdsong, trickling water, wind, rain, light traffic or street sounds. The simplicity of what appears onscreen allows you to focus more on the narrator’s voice, yet the images often reflect the tone of what is being read out, so the marriage of sound and imagery has been constructed perfectly. For example, in a letter written by Heise’s grandmother, Edith Hirschhorn, she states, ‘it was if I was seeing things through a fog’, and while this is being read out, we see the view from the back of a tram cart, looking through a foggy window out onto the street.

One of the most memorable sequences in the film consists of a series of letters between Edith Hirschhorn – who was living in Berlin with Wilhelm Heise – and her family in Vienna during World War II in the early 1940s. The Hirschhorns, a Jewish family, confide in Edith their struggles and concerns as the treatment of Jews in Vienna gradually gets worse. Despite the calm, almost emotionless recital from Heise, the uncertainty, panic and fear leaking from the letters is palpable, and while they are being read out, there is a long list of names from Nazi documents of Jewish residents who were to be sent to ghettos or concentration camps, panning down the screen. At around half an hour, this section is quite lengthy, but it is both fascinating and heart-breaking to see such a horrific period of history from the perspective of one family.

To understand and learn from Heimat is a Space in Time, you have to commit to its lengthy 218 minutes, which is a difficult task. However, the cleverly constructed combination of sound and imagery is refreshing, and the film provides an incredibly rare and intimate insight into the lives of one family and how the changing social and political landscape in Germany affected them over the course of time.

Olivia Hill

Updated: Nov 21, 2019

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