Personal Histories

Stephan Geene’s SHAYNE (2019)

The German word Heimat, meaning “home” or “homeland,” is spring-loaded with connotations ranging from heart-warming Gemütlichkeit to awe-inspiring Romanticism to fear-triggering German nationalism. In cinema, the term has been applied to a genre of German films made from the late 1940s through the ’60s, most of them harmless love stories set in the mountains, the Black Forest, or countryside villages in an idealized era far and away from two disastrous world wars and any hint of contemporary geopolitics. These popular movies seemed to suggest to German audiences that, while it was still too early to take pride in their national identity, taking comfort in it at least was once again permissible. The ’70s, a decade of cultural reckoning with the sins of the fathers, saw a backlash of so-called anti-Heimatfilme, and in 1984, German television began broadcasting Edgar Reitz’s Heimat, the first of three series that, by the conclusion of Heimat 3 (2004), has traced the lives of a German family from 1919 through 2000.

Heimat Is a Space in Time, the new film by the great documentarian Thomas Heise that’s premiered in the Berlinale’s Forum section, also relates the history of a single family—his own—and, by extension, that of Germany from just prior to the First World War through 2014. It actually begins in Austria, in Vienna, where his great-grandparents exchanged letters that Heise reads in a steady, unemotional, and yet very present voice over photos and documents from his personal archives. Over the course of three-and-a-half hours—in an interview conducted by Claus Löser for the Forum, Heise insists that “the length isn’t a statement, it’s just how the film ended up”—succeeding generations of this partly Jewish family will be displaced, first from apartment to apartment, and then from city to city, to Berlin by way of Dresden, as the forces of fascism rise and fall. In one deeply disturbing passage, letters written in the early 1940s, remarkably courageous in their insistence on polite decorum as a conscious or unconscious form of quiet yet firm resistance, are read over seemingly endless lists of the names and personal data of Jews assigned to the trains that would take them from Vienna to the death camps.

Black and white throughout, the film switches between the archival material and fresh footage shot at or near the locations where the letters were written. Vienna is seen through the rain-mottled windows of a tram rolling through the city, and there are tracks and trains all up and down Mitteleuropa, while other scenes depict abandoned urban spaces or the circular patterns of light formed by raindrops falling on the surface of a lake. Moving into the 1980s, Heise gives the audio track over to a recording of a conversation between East German playwright Heiner Müller and the director’s father, Wolfgang Heise, a philosopher who would eventually count among his students a few of East Germany’s most prominent dissidents. There are echoes in this passage of Heise’s remarkable 2009 film Material, which focused on the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin wall. Both films remind us that even the East Germans most severely critical of their government were wary of the world they were being flushed into when Germany’s two halves were melded in the early 1990s, a world of unfettered, slash-and-burn capitalism. For all the ideas packed into Heimat Is a Space in Time, part of its power lies the simplicity of its chronological structure. “Despite its modest means, the scope of the film is immense and its insights and peculiarities found in its epistolary revelation vast,” writes Notebook editor Daniel Kasman.

Heimat Is a Space in Time is scoring some of the strongest ratings in’s ongoing poll of eighteen critics attending the Berlinale, and on that grid, you’ll see that I’ve given the highest rating to only one film so far, Stephan Geene’s SHAYNE, premiering in the Forum Expanded subsection. I honestly believe that I’d be just as impressed with this six-episode, two-hour “serial TV anti-portrait” of Europop star Ricky Shayne if Stephan weren’t an old friend, though I’ll admit that my familiarity with his work as a writer, theater director, filmmaker, and translator may inform my appreciation of SHAYNE.

Born in Cairo and raised in Beirut, Ricky Shayne shot to stardom in the mid-1960s in Rome, where he appeared in a few films and recorded his first albums before being brought to Germany on a wave of PR engineered by the teen magazine Bravo. Incorporating archival clips and materials—adroitly shot by Volker Sattel—ranging from the notebooks that ten-year-old Stephan kept as an avid fan to posters, album covers, and set designs and rehearsals for a live gala staged at Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt as well as interviews with Shayne’s sons, and of course, Shayne himself, now in his seventies, SHAYNE, fully intended to be binged in one sitting, builds toward a climactic sequence manufactured in such a way that’s self-aware without ever winking. Not for a moment does the series show any signs of strain or overreach as each of its disparate pieces falls into place to form a quietly vital study of the way pop culture shapes who we become.

One more Forum entry that makes imaginative use of archival footage and photographs needs mentioning here. In Breathless Animals, animator Lei Lei overlays conversations he’s recorded with his mother—recollections of growing up in China during the Cultural Revolution—with found photos and clips from documentaries doctored until they come off like old magazine layouts brought to jittery life. While his mother does discuss the disappearance of her father, who was sentenced to laboring on a farm in the name of reform, much of the discussion focuses on the dreams she had when she dozed off in front of her family’s black-and-white TV set, the first in her hometown, which drew a nightly audience of curious neighbors, or the utilitarian design of the furniture in a succession of ever-larger and more comfortable apartments. Lei Lei’s choppy soundtrack and animated cutouts and painted brushstrokes accentuate the beauty of memories that can never be fully reconstructed.

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