Documentary cinema’s most popular formal device is the so-called Ken Burns effect, that famous slow-motion slide across an archival photo until the camera settles on the main subject of the image. Heimat Is a Space in Time abundantly indulges this device but never quite in the way you might expect. Instead, filmmaker Thomas Heise’s photographic material creeps across the screen as if it were a tectonic plate, indifferent to the camera documenting it, which often only catches human faces for a brief moment before dwelling in negative space. All this time spent contemplating blown-up grain and blur might seem counterproductive in a film that, at least on paper, is a survey of 20th-century German history through the lens of Heise’s own genealogy. But the emphasis on the micro over the macro extends to every facet of this sprawling four-hour work, which seeks to excavate real human thought and feeling beneath the haze of larger political structures.
Composed of a series of documents—snail-mail correspondence between family members, letters to and from government offices, transcripts of recordings, personal diaries, school papers, and more—that are read aloud one after another by Heise in a soothing baritone, the documentary’s narration track is a near-constant stream of family lore for which few concessions are made to situate the listener. Every once in a while we’ll hear a date at the end of a letter or a reference to a contemporaneous historical event, but otherwise we’re left to piece together the timeline and relations of family members through context clues.
To further encourage close listening, Heise slows the visual track to a glacial pace, treating archival material and original footage to equal scrutiny. Majestic monochrome shots—most static, some animated by languorous lateral movement—of urban and rural present-day Germany occupy the screen for up to minutes at a time, sometimes offering a subtle parallel to the spoken word, other times a counterpoint, and in certain instances acting as a riddle.
Heise’s material begins at the dawn of World War I with an academic essay by his grandfather, Wilhelm, whose writing demonstrates a precocious intellectual’s contempt for war and its societal cost, establishing the film’s overarching tone of resistance. At the end of this recitation, there’s a foreboding juxtaposition of shots—first a shadowy image of a cargo train lumbering into or out of a station and then a slow pan of partiers in Berlin—whose implications weigh heavily over the ensuing sequence of exchanges between Wilhelm and his lover, Edith Hirschhorn, a Jewish woman studying sculpture in Vienna. The macabre significance of trains in German history should require no further explication, and Heise sprinkles shots of them throughout the film while periodically layering the soundtrack of muted field recordings with distant locomotive rumbles to underscore this tragic past.
The legacy of WWII becomes palpable in the film’s most harrowing chapter, a nearly half-hour sequence where Heise scrolls an extremely long Third Reich document listing the names of Viennese Jews shipped by train to labor camps in the early ’40s. As we’re subjected to reams of this evil banality, Heise narrates the dozens of missives sent between Wilhelm and Edith as the latter becomes gradually aware of the awful reality behind the Nazi party’s increased presence in Vienna. It’s one of the few sections in Heimat Is a Space in Time in which dates are routinely cited, and as the time between dates increasingly widens with each letter received and Edith’s anxiety grows, the mere acknowledgment of time passing becomes freighted with pathos. The sequence’s conclusion coincides with Heise’s camera reaching the end of the Nazi’s list, at which point there’s a black screen whose implication could not be clearer.
Had it ended there, at the close of the first of four chapters, Heimat Is a Space in Time would be a formidable addition to the pantheon of Holocaust films, one that accrues its power largely through inference and indirection. Where it goes from this point is more demanding, less immediately emotional, and arguably less compelling to a non-German-language viewer for reasons related to both the specificity of the historical incidents covered and the sheer commitment required to read the barrage of subtitles. Broadening in scope, the film traces a winding path from Wilhelm’s experiences in a mixed-race work camp (accompanied by ghostly images of the ground where it once stood) to his son Wolfgang’s coming of age in the German Democratic Republic, where in the peak of his professional life as a dean of philosophy he fell victim to the Stasi’s menacing control, ultimately coalescing in a self-imposed exile.
This section of the film is rife with correspondences between Wolfgang and Heise’s mother, Rosemarie, as well as between Wolfgang and his various colleagues. Many of these exchanges skew heady and discursive, with analyses of Brecht and Borges outweighing more transparent emotional addresses. In fact, the film demonstrates that in times of repression, such arcane discussions become a roundabout path to personal expression.
Along the way, Heise serves up visual evidence of the decay of the same institutions and structures that, in the readings, pose such oppression. The point isn’t to draw a false sense of triumph from their defeat so much as lament the idea that all this suffering may have yet to lead to any better future. As in John Gianvito’s Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind or Chantal Akerman’s South, Heimat Is a Space in Time calls on the viewer, through duration and framing, to contemplate landscapes where cataclysmic events occurred not terribly long ago, and to consider how history still imprints itself on these spaces.
For all their ambiguities, those films ultimately engendered a righteous fury about the histories they obliquely depicted, and so does this one. Heise’s sobering build-up of facts, records, details and dates leaves only an urgent clarity in its wake, a conviction that so many lives were painfully and irrevocably altered by state harassment, and that any modern attempt to rebuild atop sites of atrocities must start with a collective recognition of this reality. In scaling his own family tree, Heise is really appealing to an entire nation.