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‘Vanishing Traces’
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‘Vanishing Traces’

Thomas Heise’s genealogical journey through four generations of his German family uses small details to tell a sweeping personal and political story.

George Robinson covers film and music for The Jewish Week.

Heise’s portraits of all-but-abandoned farm land, shattered roadways and deserted forests unfold at an unnaturally slow pace.  Photos courtesy of Icarus Films
Heise’s portraits of all-but-abandoned farm land, shattered roadways and deserted forests unfold at an unnaturally slow pace. Photos courtesy of Icarus Films

History moves slowly on the macro level. Yet, history is composed of those thousand tiny moments that, as individuals, we experience as fleeting, ephemeral. Film is by its very nature the most likely vehicle for examining the seeming paradox. There have been documentary films that have fruitfully tilled this soil, although the means they utilize will almost always consign them to “difficult-movie hell.” An obvious example would be “Shoah,” Claude Lanzmann’s masterpiece of historical contemplation, a film that moves deftly between the personal, the global and the meta. Of course, the film is almost 10 hours long. It needs to be.

“Heimat Is a Space in Time,” a nonfiction essay film by Thomas Heise, which will open in New York March 13, inverts Lanzmann’s filmmaking practice. But it’s also a huge brick of a film, nearly four hours long and, like “Shoah” before it, Heise’s film is a powerfully immersive experience in which a viewer’s initial impulse is to resist its whirlpool-like pull. (It may be useful to read Heise’s title ironically; “heimat” could be translated as “homeland” literally, but it has a barnacle-like layer of associations that sometimes hearken back to Nazi-era nostalgia for blood and soil.)

Like Lanzmann, Heise eschews newsreels and other overt trappings of a film set in the past. His approach to the relationship between image and sound is much more oblique as he traces the lives of four generations of his German family through diaries, journals, letters and documents. The only voice we hear is his own, reading from the various texts. The images, almost entirely shot in black and white, have a more indirect relationship to the soundtrack than those of Lanzmann’s interview-driven film. One result of that change is that — especially now that almost all the witnesses to the murder of Europe’s Jews have themselves died — the testimony drives “Shoah,” with the result that it becomes a film whose central subject could just as easily be memory.

Certainly, Heise’s family history — which involves several generations of intellectuals, Communists, Jewish-gentile marriages, persecution by the Nazis and the Stasi in turn — is as dramatic and historically revealing as many of the stories Lanzmann recounts. Heise’s stories are not, perhaps, predicated on human memory, relying on the more indirect human capacity for recording events.

“I’m an archaeologist who’s digging up my own ruins,” Heise says. “The archaeology of real existence.”

But Heise is drumming away, slowly, inexorably but almost imperceptibly throughout the film’s running time, at something else, perhaps at time itself. The visuals of “Heimat Is a Space in Time” have great beauty, but more than that, they possess a startling tactility. They have an overwhelming sense of three-dimensionality, with the result that his extended portraits of all-but-abandoned farm land, shattered roadways and deserted forests lead us into a different reality, a sense of time moving at an unnaturally slow pace.

In an e-mail interview last week (elegantly translated from German by John Barrett), Heise responded to a question about the film’s bleak imagery.

“With some luck, nature will re-emerge in our wake,” he wrote. “A nature that we roughly know or perhaps in another form. Forests or something similar is conceivable. That’s a source of hope. I don’t see anything bleak in it. I’m interested in learning about it. Perhaps, it is a way of looking at something that will come in the wake of humanity, of looking at its vanishing traces.”

Heise is, himself, something of a remnant of a vanishing family. He wrote, “I’m probably the last in the line, officially speaking.”

He responds to that reality with a certain dry, wry wit.

“I wasn’t in a position to make the film at an earlier stage,” he wrote. “Even though it hurts, that’s a fundamental fact. In order to be able to excavate something, it must have died out beforehand. I’m an archaeologist who’s digging up my own ruins. The archaeology of real existence.”

Given the film’s length, its rich tapestry of image and sound associations and its dazzling, highly satisfying structural complexity, Heise made a lot of directorial decisions on the fly.

“The film had occupied my thoughts for over 20 years and my life revolved around it, although I was only aware of about half of the material that I ultimately used in the texts in it,” he explained.

He recalled an entire year spent transcribing the texts that would form the basis for the narration, keeping that wealth of material in his head, “the lot of it, every last sentence.” He added, “It was buzzing like a beehive.”

 

Yet he had no shooting script to speak of.

“The fact of the matter is, at the time of filming, none of the images we created had a specific place in the film,” he wrote. “I was unsure whether they might appear in the beginning, at the end, halfway through the film, or perhaps not at all. That means that I’m making something that is mostly intuitive, where possible, akin to self-contained short scenes, each like a short film in itself, which don’t seek to follow the other short films. And all the other self-contained scenes do likewise. That means we’re producing something akin to building blocks, with which I can then later assemble that which I want to show. On top of that, we have to deal with the filming conditions. At the [railroad] shunting yard in Vienna, for example, that entailed a two-day shoot. The images shot there contain every conceivable movement of the train-wagons: close-ups, long shots, tracking shots. These reveal without context, which the public later comes to understand by dint of the narrated texts; in themselves they demonstrate the frictionless, unswerving functioning of a machine.”

At first glance, “Heimat Is a Space in Time” may seem more like a Rube Goldberg device, but as the film unspools and its careful mosaic of images and words accumulates, a viewer gradually realizes that his machine is a work of “frictionless” beauty, daunting perhaps, but inexorably, hypnotically involving. _

“Heimat Is a Space in Time” will have its New York theatrical debut at Anthology Film Archives (First Avenue and First Street) on March 13.

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