One World Romania 2020. Heimat ist ein Raum aus Zeit
Thomas Heise’s monumental documentary film seems to have already become somewhat of a modern classic in certain circles – it has been reviewed by all major film outlets across the globe after a lengthy festival run, even making it on multiple end-of-the-year and even end-of-the-decade lists. Heimat ist ein Raum aus Zeit – which could be roughly translated to Homeland is a Space in Time – follows a century of German history across four generations in chronological order, starting from the interwar Berlin and Vienna and up to the first half of the last decade, which is reconstructed from the filmmaker’s personal archive of correspondences and diaries, rounded up at times with official documents, autobiographies, and CVs and even fragments of a Stasi secret police dossier. Thus, Heise reconstructed both Germany and Austria’s descent into Nazism, but also the heavy atmosphere of the postwar years which led to the separation of Germany, stretching through the entire duration of the East-German communist regime and culminating with the Fall of the Berlin Wall. Heise doesn’t illustrate these texts with official archives, however. Even though it begins on a color sequence, the film continues almost exclusively in black and white, featuring mostly images that are neutral (such as forests, fields, crowded U-Bahn and S-Bahn stations, dilapidated interiors, and so on), its central visual leitmotif being that of the train – a construction which at times is dotted with reproductions of personal documents or photographs.
The film’s first part is frequently heart-wrenching: its central moment is a vast, almost half an hour-long sequence, in which a list of the Jewish people deported from Vienna runs on the screen as letters from his grandmother’s family reveal how they are gradually stripped of all their rights and ultimately deported; the sequence is immediately followed by a harrowing account of the bombing of Dresden, seen from street level. The second part of the film, however, which centers on the communist period, shows a profoundly nihilist outlook – the protagonists seem mostly disoriented and numb (such as Udo, the first boyfriend of Heise’s mother, who is trapped on the western side of the Berlin Wall and is frequently abusive in his letters to Rosie); capital-H history is less visible here, but the film is tangibly permeated by a sensation of suffocation, of lack of perspective – which are specific to life during a dictatorship, as Heise himself reads the texts without any sort of affect or intonation. The post-war pessimism finds its mirror-image in the film’s ending, in a letter that decries the state of reunified Germany and the appearance of neo-Nazism, but also in the conclusion that the direct witnesses of the Second World War are all now almost gone.
The fact that Heise hails from an intellectual family – his grandfather, Wilhelm, had been a teacher and literary critic, his grandmother Edith was a sculptor, and both of his parents were university professors, his father Wolfgang being even the Dean of the prestigious Humboldt University at one point – is a fortunate opportunity: not only did the family know how to archive its own correspondences and memories, but it also had the capacity of describing its experiences with a very high degree of poetic and philosophic reflexivity. It’s something that can be noticed from the very first document featured in the film – a school essay about the horrors of war, written by Wilhelm before the First World War – and which permeates even the darkest moments described: in 1945, the young Wolfgang writes the following in a letter to his parents, from the labor camp in which he is imprisoned: “we wait; still, we cannot see the flow of history”. In the second half of the film, the tone becomes increasingly nihilistic – starting from 16-year-old Thomas’s assertion that “I could become anything, anything, but this also could mean nothing at all”, to the apocalyptic visions of democracy in Rosie’s letters; a tone which gains in traction in an almost directly proportional fashion with the increasing complexity of the texts, and thus appearing as a morbid intuition of the far-right’s resurgence.
If in last week’s column, my colleague Victor Morozov brought into discussion the concept of „ethics as aesthetics”, here, I would like to tackle the opposite – that of “aesthetics as ethics”. Many of the film’s reviewers summarily tagged the film’s spartan and non-narrative visuals, which are rarely used for classical illustration purposes, under the umbrella of “experimental”. Of course, it is up for debate if one can still properly attribute the term “experimental” to essay-films, a genre that already has many decades to its name. Truth be told, oftentimes the usage of the term has little to do with the object onto which it is applied, but rather only continues to reinforce the same paradigmatic notions that haunt vast swathes of cinematic thought – of mainstream versus arthouse, Hollywood versus (mostly, but not limited to European) national cinema and so on – onto which experimental cinema is nothing more than the Other, a strange third wheel of cinema. Any sensitive cinephile knows better than this.
However, Heise’s film is not just part of a very long cinematic tradition in terms of formality, but also one of its most contentious, obsessive pursuits: the question of how to appropriately represent historical atrocity, especially that of the Holocaust. It is a question that has preoccupied filmmakers since the very advent of modern history’s darkest event’s representation in artistic documentaries (since fiction film rarely avoids the perverse temptation of transforming it into a pretext for spectacle and showmanship, be it The Pianist or Son of Saul), in a way that is ethical towards the victims. Starting from Alain Renais and his Nuit et Brouillard to Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, passing through films that tried to probe into the mindset of the oppressors, such as Ruth Beckerman’s East of The War and Marcel Ophuls’ The Memory of Justice, the question of ethically representing the Holocaust through moving images was always a point of contention that led to a vast array of formal approaches that would avoid anything related to cinematic realism and, at times, even narrative cinema itself.
In his famous 1960 essay, On Abjection, Jacques Rivette indicates exactly why such a subject is not suited to a realist treatment: it is immoral, pornographic, voyeuristic and tasteless, but it is exactly this type of representation that has been seen by the vast majority of modern spectators and has become a main mode of relating. (Should anyone really be surprised at the recent TikTok trend in which teens pose in Holocaust victims that are in heaven?) At the same time, he underlines a key aspect: that the force of Nuit et Brouillard is less indebted to its archival footage than it is to its montage, which acts as an expression of a conscience that is unable to accept or understand such a phenomenon.
And so, through his usage of frequently neutral imagery – and, the Dresden sequence aside, the texts contain no macabre details – the Brechtian form which Heise employs falls squarely under the thought that the Holocaust is in fact „unrepresentable” and that any attempt at doing so would be fundamentally unethical. Not only does he reject the oft-used visual archives of the period, he even outright rejects any sort of juxtaposition of text and image (save for the very clear and poignant metaphor of the train), which would just act as a distraction from the events and emotions described in the correspondences. Which ultimately attests for the sheer force of these accounts, on the one hand, but also for a deep attention for the spectators of the film – which are offered both the necessary space for reflection by eliminating any useless stimuli, but also a calming effect that is brought on by these „completely neutral” time-images.