When swept up in the events of history, families can coalesce or crumble, but they’re rarely unchanged. In his steadily unfurling documentary “Heimat Is a Space in Time,” East Berlin-born filmmaker Thomas Heise uses letters, photographs and original black-and-white footage to build a mosaic of stories detailing how Germany’s upheaval affected three generations of his family, from World War I through Nazism, life under the Stasi, and after the Berlin Wall’s collapse.
If that sounds like a colossus of a subject, it is — at over 3½ hours, it’s a commitment for your conscience. And yet the family prism of Heise’s approach — as experienced through correspondence he reads in the measured tone of someone next to you, careful not to disturb others — gives the work an abiding intimacy, of something shared, not merely shown. When his voice is coupled with pictures of Heise’s ancestors, images of nature in tranquility or present-day sites where his ancestors once walked, or shots of trains rolling across the frame, the effect is eerily calm and austere. There’s a sense of reckoning with the country’s turbulent past, as you might methodically deal with a problematic relative.
From the beginning, it’s a disciplined excursion. After some curious opening shots in a wooded area marked by two-dimensional painted cutouts of Red Riding Hood, the grandmother and a wolf — like mythic foreshadowing for the tales of peril and family to follow — Heise segues to a blistering antiwar homework essay his grandfather Wilhelm wrote as a schoolboy in 1912. His ancestor’s prescience and assurance at such a young age are remarkable considering the collapse of social ethics and morals that lay ahead, with leaders who wouldn’t care how many wars they created.
The next section is a story of ambition and courtship, as gentile Wilhelm falls for Jewish Edith Hirschorn, a budding artist, while Heise shows us rainy, modern-day Vienna through the back window of a trolley. It’s for us to piece together information from the fragments Heise reads to us from this time period — the filmmaker never comments himself, so we listen for clues. The picture that develops is of a strong marriage destined to be targeted by the Nazis.
This leads to this epistolary documentary’s most gripping sequence, in which Heise slowly pans down typewritten Nazi lists of Viennese Jews sent to Polish ghettos while he reads from a series of letters, filled with increasing anxiety yet heartbreaking optimisim, between members of Edith’s family. The observations and sentiments — her parents and siblings struggle to reconcile their hopes with reality — become, in Heise’s flat narration, cumulatively devastating, like a spoken dirge. Sentences as simple as “If we can, we’ll write again” become impossibly sad remnants.
When Heise turns to life under Communism for his father, Wolf, a philosophy professor (Wilhelm and Edith’s son, who spent time in a labor camp) and mother, Rosie, a literature teacher, idealism and betrayal feed off each other, whether it’s the oppressiveness of party officials keeping tabs on ideological purity or his parents’ extramarital dalliances. Some details still shock: Wolf and Rosie were under surveillance by the Stasi, and a report on the pair has a list of “sources” that’s almost comically long, as if informing was every East German’s second job.
Other pieces paint a picture of bonds miraculously held together in adversity, as when an entry from Rosie’s diary speaks of an outing with her husband, who chose a sunlit pine grove to remind her that the East German state was no different than any other — “an instrument of domination” whose weapon is “false consciousness.” When Rosie asks what they’re supposed to do then, Heise’s father answers, “Remain decent.”
There isn’t much in “Heimat” (home or homeland in German) that’s easily categorizable, as personal essay or documentary. In its extreme length and precise technique, it’s decidedly not for everybody. But although it is at times distractingly opaque, occasionally Heise’s family’s words, juxtaposed with his sounds and images, crystallize into something singularly wise about the nexus of place, history and trauma.
Running time: 3 hours, 38 minutes
Playing: Starts March 13, Lumiere Music Hall, Beverly Hills