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Remembering Thomas Heise

Thomas Heise

When news broke on Thursday that a sudden illness had taken writer, theater director, and documentary filmmaker Thomas Heise the night before, it was shocking in part because he was so young—sixty-eight—and partly because it seemed to come out of nowhere. Less than two weeks ago, he was taking part in a panel discussion, and he was scheduled for another one this week.

The son of philosopher Wolfgang Heise grew up in what he described to Jordan Cronk in a 2020 interview for Film Comment as “an idyllic villa suburb” in southeastern Berlin. In the 1970s, he worked as an assistant to Heiner Carow, who had directed one of the most popular films in all of East German cinema, The Legend of Paul and Paula (1973). As Heise told Cronk, when he completed his own first film, Why Make a Film About These People? (1980), Carow told him “that I’d never get it past the authorities. So I stupidly changed the film, took out about a third of it,” and when Carow saw the new cut, he said, “‘Thomas, you’ve become tame now.’ That hit me hard.”

When even the tamed version was banned, Heise took odd jobs to make ends meet and to buy the black-market materials he’d need to carry on making untamed short films. All of these early works, banned until after the fall of the Wall, “feel like a collection of non-state sanctioned images secretly extracted from behind the public face of East German reality and its civic institutions,” wrote David Perrin for the Notebook in 2020.

“I also wanted to become a proletarian,” Heise told Cronk. “Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Accattone (1961) was one of the most impressive films I saw at that time. The images of the desolate suburb, the laymen who were ‘great’ as laymen, the compelling and casual narration, Bach’s music . . . it’s like a passion story. That impressed me very much and did not let go—it always comes back to me.”

In the 1990s, Heise wrote radio dramas and worked at the Berliner Ensemble with theater director Fritz Marquardt and the renowned dramatist Heiner Müller. In 2009, Heise won the Grand Prix at FIDMarseille for Material, a montage of gripping scenes from the waning days of the German Democratic Republic and its slow-motion integration into present-day Germany. “For me,” writes filmmaker Christoph Hochhäusler (The City Below, Till the End of the Night), Material is “among the key films in the history of German cinema.”

Heimat Is a Space in Time (2019) spans a full century and four generations of Heise’s family, presenting “an archive of personal letters, photographs, official documents, and recordings that reveal history not as an abstraction or as a set of events occurring elsewhere,” wrote Perrin, “but as a single catastrophe that pummels a life into shape, destroys and takes. A tale of two cities: Vienna and Berlin; topographies of memory and trauma; tramways and railway lines; a journey through space and time, through streets, corridors, ruins, landscapes, and train stations. The destination: an elusive Heimat that is not a physical place you can return to, but a filmic space built out of time’s leavings.”

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