Director Thomas Heise was born and raised in East Berlin, and he’s been working long enough in documentaries that his earliest films were suppressed by GDR censors. His understanding of the German national character is rooted in the belief in its potential for curbing freedoms at a minimum and tipping into violent nationalism and fascism in its darkest moments. Over the course of his 218-minute opus “Heimat Is a Space in Time,” Heise examines nearly 100 years of German history through the prism of his own complex genealogy, drawing on letters, diaries and other documents from throughout the 20th century. It’s an enormous undertaking for Heise — and for even the most adventurous viewers — but his essay-film holds the personal and the historical in elegant balance, revealing how all families are subject to forces beyond their control.
Screening in the experimental Wavelengths section at the Toronto Film Festival — as opposed to TIFF Docs, the larger repository for nonfiction — “Heimat Is a Space in Time” is notable as much for what it doesn’t do formally than what it does. It isn’t a fly-on-the-wall observational doc. It doesn’t have a single talking head. It doesn’t have a conventional narrator or titles to establish context for whatever period a section of the film happens to cover. The primary voice that’s heard here, in fact, is Heise’s, delivered in a flat, affectless monotone that drains away the passion and sentiment of more performative readings but doesn’t diminish their power. No actorly embellishment is necessary.
Rather than lean on archival footage, Heise and his cinematographer, Stefan Neuberger set these words against impeccably framed, mostly black-and-white landscapes, with a particular focus on trains and train yards, which have a chilling association with concentration camps but also suggest the inexorable forward movement of time. Starting with World War I and progressing through the horrors of World War II, life in East Germany under the Stasi and the fall of the Berlin Wall, “Heimat Is a Space in Time” reflects on history through a family that’s ordinary in many respects but also has a strong vein of intellectualism running through it — and, most helpfully, a lot of documentation for Heise to draw on.
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The most affecting passage in the film also underscores the rigorous minimalism that defines the project. For roughly 30 minutes, Neuberger’s camera pans slowly down a list of names on Nazi documents from the early 1940s, all Jews who were rounded up and jettisoned to the ghettos and bleaker destinations down the line. While this seemingly endless scroll continues, Heise reads from a series of letters between family members at the time, their tone becoming progressively more desperate and despairing as the list moves forward chronologically. The letters affirm an important point about the Holocaust: The extermination of the Jews wasn’t something that happened all at once, but involved a steady erosion of freedoms over a long period, like a form of institutional strangulation. Listening to these heartbreaking exchanges is a reminder that historical evil has the potential to burble up slowly, first through dehumanizing language and laws and later through a tragic series of actions.
The end of World War II doesn’t end the fight for Heise’s family, either, given the impositions of East Germany under Soviet control and the restrictions and threats on their academic freedoms. Yet for all of Heise’s justifiable pessimism about government incursions on ordinary citizens, he does express a hopefulness about the human capacity for love and perseverance in defiance of circumstances, as well as a continued intellectual curiosity. Traumas may have disrupted the family line, but there’s still a strong link from one generation to the next, like a band of resistance that persists through the ages.
The audience for “Heimat Is a Space in Time” will be small and self-selected, given the twin impositions of the running time and the aesthetic severity. When a list of names is the only visual accompaniment to 30 minutes of epistolary exchanges — and that’s by far the most emotionally compelling section of the film — it’s a steep mountain for many to climb. Yet the overall effect of Heise’s work is mesmeric, persuasive and cumulatively powerful, as each piece of the puzzle falls into place and he lands on overarching insights into a German century and what it portends for the future.