Thomas Heise is a documentary filmmaker whose latest feature film, Heimat Is a Space in Time (2019), reunites the filmmaker with his family’s relationship to German (and East German) history. Spanning four generations, Heise’s essay film draws upon a large archive of familial material from a period of time that includes the Holocaust, the creation of the GDR, literary scandal, economic devastation, and much more, orated verbatim alongside contemporary footage from the country and shots of the ephemera itself. The film had its North American premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, where we talked to Thomas about making of the film and his relationship to the matter of history. This interview was facilitated with the aid of a translator.
The Seventh Art: How did you first approach a big project like this? Your film, Vaterland (2002), dealt with some similar aspects, but how did you first decide to return to the subject?
Thomas Heise: We didn’t know from the outset that it would be this big. When I made Vaterland in 2000, it was actually my second attempt to make that film. The first time I tried to make it was in 1987 in the former East Germany. I wasn’t allowed to make the film that I wanted to make, so that didn’t work. I took a second run at it in 2000 when the film was actually made. I’m working with the same material, but then a whole lot of other material came. We had this mountain of papers and letters and notebooks, material that I went through with a student for a year and transcribed. We ended up with forty binders, it was a tonne of material and I knew I needed to do something with it. So I talked with Heino [Deckert], the producer, and he managed to find financing for it. Once you have the financing, you have no choice, you just have to do it. There was this practical aspect, but it was also an existential moment for me where I knew I needed to work through this material. It’s not just that you realize you have to do something with the material, it’s more that the material is doing something with you. The material is telling you, “You’ve got do something with me.” I had no choice.
I liked the line in your film Material (2009) where you mention that history is a heap of things, how do you know where the boundaries are for that heap, what materials you will be using for the film.
There is no end to the pile. You could say you’re just standing in the shit, there’s no end to it, it’s infinite.
Was it the documents you transcribed that created a structure that the images were applied to or was it something you determined after shooting?
We had one month, February, to shoot, so I knew I had to collect everything I needed in that month. I set out with a cameraman and my sound person and we collected images. There were three locations that we knew we wanted: the huge train station near Vienna; Peenemünde; and Zerbst, which was in Vaterland. Those three were given, the rest was stuff we found along the way. We collected images over the course of that month and we didn’t know what image would work with what part of the written material we were working with. We just knew we had those forty binders in our heads and shot things we thought could be useful. The shots from Ostkreutz were actually something I shot for another film, 24 h Berlin (2009), between 2005 and 2009. At that time, I knew those images would be useful for this project without knowing exactly how they would be used. It’s a lot about collecting images over time, the same process for Material. You collect without knowing how it will fit together, but first you need the pile.
There is one shot in Vaterland at Zerbst that tracks the landscape. This same shot is used in Heimat, then the barracks were green and they’re reading a letter from my grandfather, Wilhelm. This shot is used again, but twenty years later the buildings that were in the background are gone and what’s left of them is the rubble that you see on the ground. I considered using both, a before and after, but I decided to just use what you see today.
There’s also an interest tracking shot of a roll of film in Heimat, as well as a vertical scan of a list of names. I’m curious how you decided to approach presenting the documents.
It’s mainly a practical consideration of how to do it in a film like this where you have so much text, so much being read. You need to have the right images, but the images can’t be too engaging or distracting because the viewer needs to be able to take in the text. You have to pace it in such a way that the viewer is not distracted by one or the other. You basically have three choices: up-and-down, left-to-right or in-and-out. The given was that scene from Vaterland, the tracking shot, and when you know you’re starting from there, you only have so many options. We didn’t want to do a lot of fancy tricks with the camera. There’s more movement in the text than there is in the image. I wanted the film to have the speed of a solar eclipse and also the feeling of a solar eclipse: the movement is inevitable, it continues no matter what. I wanted the film to have that tempo, a progression that is unstoppable. Something you can’t escape or get away from, it just continues.
The sound design does a good job of creating a space that contrasts the flatness of the documents, how did you approach that element of the film?
It’s all working on the theme of the separation of the image from the sound. We wanted to create that effect throughout, so it’s the same with the sound: we almost did no synchronous sound. In a few spots you hear what’s actually being shown, but it’s very rare. The sound guy is a musician himself and he was really pleased that we weren’t doing synchronized sounds, that he could source the sounds. His mandate when we were shooting images was to go out and collect sounds from the woods, the trees, the birds, whatever he thought would work. He was always collecting. The idea throughout the film was to create a distance from the object being shown, a disassociation. I do that with the cars, there are almost no cars in the movie. There’s the one scene where they’re talking about inflation where you see cars as cars, but mostly you see cars being transported on trains, which is unto itself absurd. The idea there is to make the viewer reflect on the object itself. I didn’t want to highlight it, but it’s something the viewer might become aware of later. It’s something I’m suggesting, hinting at… it’s there.
There is a literary component in the text, references to Brecht, Borges, Heiner Müller, that includes a quote about Brecht’s literature lacking the personal. How do you balance the political and the personal?
That was Müller talking in the end of the 1980s, saying that to make people listen you have to talk about yourself. It can’t just be about yourself, it has to be more than yourself, but also it can’t just be about others. You have to make it personal in order for it to make an impact. This film is doing exactly that.
Is that what the last line is about? The one from the narrator, not from a document, that mentions taking possession of the mother’s apartment – to consider the personal measure of history?
Was it hard deciding how to end an expansive project like this?
Yeah, that last line contrasts Rosemarie’s death and her own reflection of her death. The fact that she’s observing it and thinking about it, and it’s happening to her at the same time. The synchronicity is what interests me, it’s a similar idea to Bergman’s The Serpent’s Egg (1977) and also when Rosemarie is talking about Müller, that he’s drowning and at the same time watching himself drown. The schizophrenia of doing something, it’s an action, but you’re also observing and reflecting on that action. There are these two positions. I wanted to end on that thought.