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Thomas Heise is an author and theatre, radio play and documentary film director. Since 2015, he has been Professor for Art and Film at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna. He has shown various films at the Forum, including Neustadt / Stau – Stand der Dinge (2000), Material (2009) and most recently Die Lage (2012).
Claus Löser is a film historian, journalist and curator.

Claus Löser: Your film Heimat ist ein Raum aus Zeit (Heimat is A Space in Time) takes in more than 100 years of history, but does so by way of the story of your family. What was your first point of entry to the material? Was there some sort of family archive?

Thomas Heise: No, there wasn’t an archive,everything came together piece by piece. I’d already used my father’s letters from the Zerbst forced labour camp for my film Vaterland (2002). I’d had them since the death of my grandmother already, I more or less just pulled them out from under the chest of drawers back when I was just 12 or 13. They’d been in my possession since then. To begin with, I just put them away without even reading them, that all came much later. It was similar in 1987 when my father died, there was the same question of what we should actually do with all his stuff. My mother wanted to throw it all away and even started doing so. But there were other things that she wanted to re-sort and add footnotes to and so on. And I said to her back then: just leave everything as it is, it’s nothing to do with you. And please no footnotes! You can’t add footnotes to a life. Somehow, in the back of my mind – without wanting to get sentimental here – I felt that we just had to sit out the dictatorship and that our family possessions also had to survive.

Can you pin down how long the research process lasted in total?

That’s hard to say, as I obviously already knew a great deal beforehand. I’d already worked through the entire correspondence from the camp in Zerbst, so that was there from the outset. My grandparents’ first love letters were also already in my possession following my grandmother’s death. I took them to my place immediately, they never even made it to my parents’ house before, otherwise they would probably have been lost. But I hadn’t yet engaged with them as potential material, I didn’t even read them back then. The process of getting to grips with the subject actually lasted many years, it was basically running along in the background the whole time and would keep breaking surface. But I wasn’t yet following the traces in a more targeted fashion. It was only when Rosi died [Thomas Heise’s mother] and then Andreas too [his brother], around 2014/15, that I realised I now had to do something. Some of the material had already been lost: due a burst pipe in the cellar on the one hand and because Rosi had already begun throwing stuff away on the other. That was to do with her need to control things. Luckily, she failed – because there was simply too much of everything. At some point, it became clear that it would be impossible for me to deal with it all alone. For that, I would need to employ someone to help me. That turned out to be a university graduate who’d previously studied German Philology and thus had enough experience with written documents and other archive materials. The obvious risk here is trying to move in too many different directions at once and getting lost accordingly. One important decision was thus to proceed in stubbornly chronological fashion. There were individual folders that Rosi had already sorted based on other criteria, but I just took them apart and re-sorted them chronologically. I didn’t, for example, treat the autographs as autographs but rather as just normal testimonies from the time.

Was there any point where you were worried that the material might end up controlling you rather than the other way around?

No, never. It was a process of discovery and didn’t initially have that much to do with research anyway. It started out pretty tediously actually, without the need for much thought, it was all about making clean copies and filing them away and then transferring everything to hard disks. We spent more than a year just securing the material, starting in May 2015. It was also very important to me that banal details would repeatedly pop up between all the more momentous documents, as a way of revealing the wider contexts, the things going on in the background. We proceeded as if we were working in a mine, like prospectors, as it were. And we turned the shards and fragments we found into a collage or put them into a new form.

So this archaeological process – putting something together from different fragments or shards – becomes an aesthetic method for you?   

Yes, as it’s not an academic process, but rather an artistic one and that means it proceeds by leaps and starts, thus allowing more possibilities. And then I can spin yarns from there. Not from what I use as fragments, but rather from what follows from them.

You obviously set yourself apart from current documentary film conventions on a whole number of different levels. The length of the film is already a clear statement.  

No, the length isn’t a statement, it’s just how the film ended up. It wasn’t planned like that. I was certainly expecting the film to be two hours, but not just under four.

Yet at the same time, there’s still a feeling after those four hours that the film could keep on going.

Yes, I’ve heard that several times already. There are a lot of things still missing.

What about your mother, for example? Her story only begins in 1945. We don’t find out anything about her family background, so it’s natural to think about what happened with her before.

She was born in 1927 and was thus still pretty young in 1945 – barely 18. Her diaries reflect that era very well, I think. She came from a social democratic family in Dresden. There are also whole boxes of writings and letters from her father Rudolf. They’re hardly even usable anymore because he wrote in pencil, on paper that’s now yellowed. We spent a whole year deciphering this material, which stretches back to the end of the 19th century. It’s all very interesting because they were so poor. Rudolf, my mother’s father, was bitterly poor, he was his mother’s third illegitimate child, born in some backwater town near Göttingen, and then grew up with foster parents after the death of his mother. That was good fortune, as he got a bit of an education thanks to them. As a young man, he then moved around a lot and made it all the way to Switzerland, where he met Fritz Brupbacher, Lenin’s doctor in exile. Then he also met Willy Münzenberg, who eventually organised a job for him at the SPD printing press in Dresden, where he slowly worked his way up. I originally wanted to tell his story too, we even shot the material for it. But then it all became too much.

It’s already not always straightforward for the viewer to grasp all the family connections.

But that’s not even necessary, to grasp all the connections one to one, I mean. That’s not what the film is really about. We did briefly consider working with graphics or something similar to illustrate these connections, but quickly rejected the idea. In the end, we consistently eschewed any additional information. In the whole film, there is only one piece of extra factual information: the section about the party proceedings against my father in the mid-60s. I would have otherwise had to quote even more of that terrible correspondence to make clear what exactly happened. And no one would be able to endure that. Essentially, I act as if everything already took place some 2,000 years ago, where no one knows anything about the broader context of the time any more. These fragments are the only thing available and can be used to make some sort of picture, although there are many, many gaps between them. And these gaps can be filled in just by thinking. And then the picture either works or it doesn’t. And by thinking so intently, you come across things that are actually wrong, but somehow right nonetheless, because you’ve figured out something else in the process. And that’s what I find interesting.  

So neither the starting point of the working process nor its end can be precisely ascertained. Most of your films also interconnect at a thematic and stylistic level, which produces a truly wonderful effect: the more comprehensive your oeuvre becomes, the more overlap there is between its individual chapters.  

Yes, that’s true, I noticed that too. But of course, it’s not something you seek or plan to do, it just happens. The films move in spirals and you don’t really know whether these spirals run forwards or backwards. And the new film is itself constructed in the same way: it also doesn’t proceed chronologically. The order doesn’t actually play such a big role – whether individual events took place ten years earlier or later isn’t so important.

The whole film seems to be one of movements: concrete movements on the one hand, such as the train journeys, but also journeys that aren’t linked to actual places, ones that pass through inner states, biographies and historical situations. I think the way these different forms of movement correspond with each another works very well. The footage of Vienna is restricted to a tram ride, filmed from the inside of the tram looking out. But the focus is on the steamed-up glass, the city itself remains totally out of focus.

That tram ride is based on an experience I had while filming Neustadt (2000). Already back then in Halle, I didn’t really know how to shoot the city. And while I was on the tram, suddenly this entirely new space opened up before me, which allowed me to narrate the city in a new way. Like we did in Halle, we just picked the longest tramline in Vienna and shot this footage. We could, of course, also have filmed the places where my family lived. The houses are all still there – or they’ve been rebuilt. In Vienna, everything was rebuilt to look like it did before the war.

The fact that you’re now a professor in Vienna is just a coincidence, no? But you do actually touch on an important section of your family there.

Well, it wasn’t a coincidence, it was a necessity (laughs). No, seriously, I went to Vienna because it fitted well at the time. It was also a good opportunity for me to start the research process.

How do you feel about the city? Do you feel connected to it on some internal level?

Well, what does connected even mean? I like being in Vienna, of course. I was already there before in a certain way, because my grandmother always used to cook Viennese style… I can’t even think about how much we used to gorge ourselves at Christmas! Vienna was always present for me, of course. But it was only a year ago that I went to one of the streets where my relatives lived for the first time.

Trains also started leaving Vienna for the death camps in 1941/42.

Exemplary research was carried out to this end in Austria, for example at the Erich Boltzmann Institute. Today, it’s possible to say how many people were in which train carriages and how few of them survived. The various places my family moved to in Vienna can, for example, be traced in entirely accurate fashion based on the records of the registration offices of the time. They continually had to move house, always into smaller flats. That could also have been depicted in the film using the various locations, but then it would have become an entirely different film. I thus decided to narrate this chapter purely via the letters and the lists. I was interested in whether it was possible to convey everything in such a way in the film – merely via the documents with the text read out over them, without the need for a single additional image. Another important question for me was how long one would be able to endure that process. The scene became longer and longer, in the end it was over 20 minutes. Chrisand I then noticed that when we saw the lists on screen for the first time, we began to read all the names and addresses of those deported, each individual entry, while the content of the letters is heard. And we realised that probably all viewers would do exactly the same, more or less involuntarily, until the lists disappear into black. And when the screen is black, the song begins “Don’t look here, don’t look there, just keep looking in front of you...”

Train stations appear in the film several times.  

The original idea was to work purely with stations; at Ostkreuz in Berlin, for example. In Vienna, that would have meant shooting at the Praterstern, which is close to where the famous Nordbahnhof used to be before it was torn down. At the end of the 19th century, lots of Jews from Galicia and Bukovina arrived there, before fleeing from there again in 1938, and then most of the Jewish population was deported from the very same station from 1943 onwards to their deaths. I looked at all of those places. But I soon realised that it’s hard to use “the railway” as a narrative vehicle any more.

Because it’s been so over-used in terms of metaphor? There’s obviously an automatic association with the deportations…  

No, not because it’s been over-used, but because it now lacks the necessary sensual, sensorial quality.  There are no longer joints in the rails, there is no longer steam. Everything that made travelling by train a sensorial experience has disappeared. Now everything just hums.

Is that why you also show nearly all the scenes from the present in black and white?

All the documents are shot in colour; all the other footage is in black and white. I love black and white. It creates clear images.

In the final third of the film, there’s a long scene consisting of black and white photos accompanied by an original sound recording of your father and playwright Heiner Müller. It’s the only original sound used in the film, at least as far as dialogue is concerned, as all the other texts are spoken by you. The two of them talk about Brecht. Can you tell me a bit more about it?

The photos were taken by Grischa Meyer, the sound I recorded myself, in Heiner Müller’s flat, Erich-Kurz-Straße 9 by the Tierpark. It’s no coincidence that Müller is in the film. That’s to do with me, because at some point I realised that I spoke far more with Müller than with my parents. But the film is not about private history, it ultimately gives an account of how biographies relate to history. Sebastian Haffner once said that anyone who wants to understand history must read biographies, above all those written by the “small people”. History sometimes hits so hard that no stone is left unturned. But for others, it seems entirely irrelevant.

And historiography is nearly always conducted from the perspective of those in control.

That’s exactly what the conversation between Wolfgang [Heise’s father] and Müller is about. And precisely that has something to do with our current era in turn and that’s also why Müller’s 1992 text “Eine Glosse zum deutschen Augenblick” (A Commentary on the Current German Moment) also appears close to the end of the film. In the text, he writes about left-wing and right-wing, about being German and about battling for lifejackets and “rescue boots full of people with nowhere to land, except on cannibalistic shores”.  And the idea that we are alone with the question of how we explain such things to our children and “that this loneliness is perhaps a form of hope”. But then even then, the film isn’t yet over.

This interview was conducted by Claus Löser on 9th January 2019 in Berlin.

Funded by:

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