“Heimat Is a Space in Time” observes Germany for more than a century through the experiences of one family. The bulk of this almost four-hour experimental essay film consists of the unseen writer-director, Thomas Heise, reading documents in voice-over — generally letters to and from his relatives, but also résumé drafts, diary entries and, from the Cold War era, a surveillance report.
Heise’s recitations are accompanied by photographs and artifacts from the past or footage from contemporary Germany, particularly landscapes and city scenes. The contrast between the cataclysmic past and the placid present owes something to “Shoah,” Claude Lanzmann’s groundbreaking 1985 Holocaust film. But because most of the testimony in “Heimat” (the word roughly means “homeland”) is filtered through Heise, the structure seems even more oblique.
Patterns emerge. In the 1930s, Thomas’s grandfather Wilhelm, a teacher, is forced to retire because his wife, Edith, is Jewish. In the 1960s, Thomas’s father, the philosopher Wolfgang Heise, is pushed out of a university position in East Berlin because he is perceived as insufficiently devoted to Communism.
During a wrenching stretch, Heise reads letters from Edith’s sister and father as their Jewish neighbors in Vienna are rounded up by the Nazis, who eventually come for them as well. As we hear this correspondence, the camera scans a list of names that seems unending.
Heise’s mode of filmmaking takes getting used to, and his omission of context leaves certain connections obscure, especially in the scattered final hour. But despite some tedious passages, “Heimat Is a Space in Time” takes an intriguing approach to history that remains refreshingly rooted in primary sources.
Heimat Is a Space in Time
Not rated. In German, with subtitles. Running time: 3 hours 38 minutes.