Saturday, December 12, 2020

Watch This Space

New Things Coming in 2021


Yes, it will still be about film, but I promise some big changes that will keep you occupied!


 


Monday, June 22, 2020

How Weird Is the World Right Now?

Yeah, that burst of action tired me out. 

My wife and I went through a ten-week quarantine only to find out that we were negative for COVID-19 all along. That is, if you trust the tests that are available. My doctor told me that the current ones may register as many as 30% false negatives. So maybe I'm not not sick.

I won't remind you of all the madness out there. ("You say it's a jungle. I say it's America.") But it does seem like a year that's ripe for non-fiction film, and I'm currently seeing more of those than of narrative features. So, a few recommendations to get you through the week. (And, no, I didn't slow the testing of recent cinema to make life easier.) Ironically (given my departure from Jewish Week just before the plague hit), most of the films I've been seeing have Jewish themes. Luck of the draw, I guess.

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The central figure of Picture of His Life, is Amos Nachoum, one of the world’s foremost wildlife photographers, a specialist in underwater photography. Nachoum’s obsession for many years has been his desire to swim with and photograph polar bears, something no underwater photographer has ever done before. Given that the polar bear is “the biggest predator on earth,” as his friend and colleague Adam Ravetch puts it, can swim twice as fast as any human and, as its natural habitat has been destroyed by climate change has developed a taste for human flesh, Nachoum is facing a significant and life-threatening challenge.

But that challenge has its roots in his own personal traumas. His father fought in the War of Independence in 1948 and suffered from PTSD. As one of Amos’s sisters recalls drily, “It wasn’t a peaceful household,” and Amos was on the receiving end of physical and verbal abuse. At one point in the film, he returns home for his father’s 90th birthday and becomes the target of a scathing and vicious attack by the old man. Nachoum is also the survivor of the terrors of modern warfare, a veteran of an elite commando unit that saw horrific action during the Yom Kippur War and his defense mechanism, still highly visible, is an invisible but obvious suit of emotional armor.

If anyone can swim with polar bears: Amos Nachoum 

Veteran Israeli documentarians Yonatan Nir and Dani Menkin use the quest for polar bears in the Canadian Arctic as a thoroughly plausible and efficient way to explore Nachoum’s personal search for tikkun. He is a genuinely likeable and profoundly compelling protagonist and the film is astonishingly beautiful, shot by himself and Ravetch. Needless to say, the subtext of environmental crisis adds to the film’s power as well.

You can screen Picture of His Life on-line. For information go here.

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The most heartening developments of this long spring have come from the perpetually painful realm of race in America (and globally, as we have seen lately). So it's appropriate that the Marlene Mayerson JCC in New York City is showcasing They Ain’t Ready for Me, directed by Brad Rothschild. The film focuses on Tamar Manasseh, an engaging powerhouse whose community work in Chicago is inspired by her intense Jewish identity. A protégé of Rabbi Capers Funnye, she grew up in his Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation and, taking the injunction to “repair the world” to heart, created a group called MASK (Mothers Against Senseless Killing), dedicated to turning at least one corner of Chicago into safe haven for children and adults. Mansseh started with the idea that a very visible group of moms sitting on a corner lot every day in the summer,  encouraging people to join them with food and play space for kids would create a sense of community and make it less likely for that one block to become a free-fire zone. The program has grown steadily and Manasseh has gradually incorporated elements from her Jewish identity into her remit, hosting a community seder and building a sukkah on the lot. She is engaging, pushy in the best way imaginable, voluble and funny. Her personality drives the film, which is a good thing since Rothschild’s conception, tied to chronology, is a bit baggy. The result is a tiny beacon of hope, never more timely than right now.  


Tamar Manasseh:  black, Jewish woman activist (Donald Trump's worst nightmare)

They Ain't Ready for Me will be available for screening June 23 at 5 p.m. through June 25 at 11:59 p.m., with a live Zoom conversation and Q+A with Manasseh and Rothschild on June 25 at 8 p.m. To register and purchase tickets go here.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Of the Making of Books, There Is No End

So said Koheleth (also known as Solomon, the putative author of Ecclesiastes).

The selling of books is another story, almost as endless, although if you watch a couple of recent movies that touch on the subject, you might think the end is nigh. 

D.W. Young's The Booksellers is an affectionate, sprawling look at the rare book business as seen through the eyes of many of its stalwart participants. Books, as someone says early in the film, are "a way of being fully human." (What does it say if we note that the current occupant of the White House is a man who never reads books? Or the warnings on bottles of bleach?) Jumping off from the annual New York Book Fair, Young offers a slightly unguided tour of the history of U.S. antiquarian bookselling, depicted by Hollywood in "a wonderful romanticized vision," as one bookseller puts it, a quick profile of a few of the more famous participants (Rosenbach, Rosenberg and Stern), then quickly leaps to profiles of several contemporary denizens.

If that sounds a bit scattered, well, it is. Young's film is cluttered with delightful vignettes, powerful witnesses and historical tidbits of singular charm. What is lacks is any basic structure. The important issues are all here: the effect of the Internet, the rise of the e-book, the overwhelmingly male, white and middle-aged population of the selling community. And each receives a solemn and thoughtful glimpse, but there seems to be no reason for where they are discussed, speakers often aren't identified, and little effort is made to connect the issues into an overview of the business. There are isolated gestures towards using the book fair as an organizing principle for the film, but these come to naught. The result is a brain-dump of some charm and one that will provide 90 minutes of pleasure to those of us who have haunted the used bookstores of America for most of our lives. 

The Booksellers is currently streamable on the Film Forum virtual theater website.

Circus of Books is a vivid contrast with Young's film. The director, Rachel Mason, was an indirect participant in the events she recounts and the structure of the film is pretty much ready-made, a more or less chronological telling of the rise and eventual fall of one of the best-known gay bookstores in Los Angeles, owned and run by her parents, Karen and Barry Mason.

Circus of Books: Karen and Barry Mason

The Masons were unlikely purveyors of porn and sex toys, but Circus of Books was as valued for its extensive offerings of non-erotica and even mainstream periodicals as for its plethora of more elemental goodies. (A close friend says that he would drop in regularly just to check out their excellent magazine selection. That, of course, was found in the front of the store.). 

The Masons are transplanted Midwesterners, married Conservative Jews whose careers began in journalism and cinema, respectively. They stumbled into their unlikely fame and for many years resisted the spotlight, and one has the uneasy feeling that when their daughter Rachel decided to make a film about them, Karen, for one, was less than thrilled. Barry, on the other hand, takes everything in stride, responding as naturally to the camera as he did to the odd career moves that led him from special effects work (he contributed to 2001: A Space Odyssey) to inventing monitoring devices for dialysis machines. Neither of Rachel’s parents sought a career as purveyors of gay sex films, magazines and toys, but they brought a dedication to their work that is refreshing.

Ironically, when one of Rachel’s two brothers, Josh, came out to his parents, it was a transformative experience for them, and one that finally led them to activism as founding members of the Los Angeles branch of P-FLAG, the parents’ support group for gay and lesbian children and adults. That turn of events provides some of the most emotionally powerful moments in Circus of Books, but along the way this otherwise very funny film is also shadowed by the impact of the AIDS epidemic and the witch-hunting of the Meese Commission on Pornography, which led to serious felony charges against Barry for distributing “obscene” materials.

Circus of Books: Uh, not the front of the store

Rachel Mason handles these moments, and the wild mood swings they provoke, with aplomb and rather more grace than she does her mother’s constant “advice,” which extends to suggestions about the filming. Circus of Books is a family project by both design and happenstance,  purely delightful, funny and gentle and deeply committed to an increasingly unfashionable platform of tolerance and acceptance.


Tomorrow I'll start to haul my tired carcass through the cornucopia that is the Tribeca Film Festival.






Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Symphony in Acid Green

Beanpole, currently streamable on Film Forum's Virtual Cinema, was on many film people's radar before it was selected for "Un Certain Regard" at the 2019 Cannes festival, where the film won the not for best direction. The film's director, Kantemir Balagov, was the product of a directing workshop headed by Alexander Sokurov, and his first feature, Closeness, had also played the sidebar at Cannes in 2017. I'm not sure, however, if anyone was prepared for how strikingly individual and unusual Balagov's vision turned out to be.

When I'm teaching screenwriting I always tell my students not to worry about that elusive goal, "originality." There are only 36 or 7 or 6 stories in the world and you are not likely to increase that number, but you can paralyze yourself with too much knowledge of what came before you. I hesitate to say that I've never seen anything like Beanpole; its story is certainly a brilliant example of how one can re-mix story elements from the past artfully, like recombinant DNA. But when you combine the film's unusual storyline with Balagov's striking visual command, particularly his manipulation of the film's highly stylized color palette, the film looks pretty unprecedented to me.

Masha (Vasilisa Perelygna) in the sickly
 yellow light of night in Beanpole's Leningrad
The title belongs to the film's protagonist, Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko, in a stunning debut). She is a nurse, a veteran of an anti-aircraft unit in Leningrad during the just-completed war. As her name suggests, she is very tall, very thin and very neurasthenic. The first time we see her, she is catatonic, frozen in a fugue state in the middle of a room filled with activity. Gently kidded by another nurse, she groggily comes out of her trance.

Whatever trauma she experienced in the siege of Leningrad, it has left its mark on her. She cares deeply, or so it appears, for a small boy, perhaps her son, leaving him with neighbors or taking him to work, where the patients on a unit for the severely war wounded find the little guy a source of amusement and warmth. And then one night, apparently in one of her trances, she smothers him under her body.

In the midst of this bleak scenario, Masha (Vasilisa Perelygna, another superb debut) her best friend from the anti-aircraft unit turns up, sharing a secret that disrupts our understanding of the backstory violently. And suddenly Balegov and co-writer Alexander Terekhov up-end the seemingly careful framework of the story. Taking us into some fairly dark waters, Beanpole goes in an unforeseen direction, a sudden slip-slide into a series of descents into hell reminiscent of Dante.

What makes the film seem particularly infernal is its color scheme, a stark opposition of varying shades of red -- from a subdued brick to a corrosive vermillion -- and green veering from a faded earthiness to an almost psychedelic vertigo-inducing acid green. Aided immeasurably by his cinematographer Ksenia Sereda, production designer Sergey Ivanov and costume designer Olga Smirnova, Balegov works these variations in all their possible complexity as we realize gradually that their unraveling is a precise and harrowing visualization of the intimate war between these two women. The result is a series of confrontations that reduce the film's male characters to pawns in a singularly destructive chess match, fools who believe they are in control when they are being manipulated all the time.

I must admit that the film's structure, although linear, feels a bit convoluted at times, although not damagingly so. I suspect that it will require additional viewings on a big screen for it to make sense.

But the film has a visual distinction and is brilliantly acted, compulsively watchable, so I'm eager to go back and see it again.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Polarization as an Excuse for Assassination?


Making a fact-based historical film might look easy. The facts are there, the events are often common knowledge, all the filmmakers have to do is provide a dramatic structure.

Yaron Zilberman, director of Incitement, the new film about Yigal Amir and the 1995 assassination of Israel’s prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, begs to differ. You will be able to be able to stream the film at  Film Forum's virtual theater later today, April 10.

“It’s a minefield, and you don’t have a map,” he said in a phone interview in January. “When we made Incitement’ I realized that it’s much harder to do than to make something up from your own imagination.”

The problem, he said, is that “life doesn’t follow screenplays.”

Zilberman, whose two previous directorial efforts were the chamber-music drama A Late Quartet (2012) and the documentary Watermarks (2004), had never undertaken such a complex project before. He found the metaphorical minefield seeded with questions that kept nagging at him throughout the filmmaking process.

“When can you change the order of history?” he asked. “Do you have to follow the chronology completely? Does it matter when Yigal acquired his gun?”

Given the subject matter, the answers to such questions carry a weight that few directors ever face.
Yaron Zilberman

Zilberman said, “This is such a sensitive topic, arguably the most traumatic event in Israeli history. What we show on screen could have an effect on the discourse in Israeli society. One step in the wrong direction and you land on a mine and it explodes.”

That ominous realization has an impact on the dramatic choices available as well.

“If you show [Amir] as a monster, there’s little to be learned from that,” Zilberman explained. “If you go to far in the opposite direction you make him too likeable. The more you suggest that he was incited to his act the more you alleviate his responsibility, but you have to show the forces that acted upon him.”

As the film’s title suggests, this last tightrope walk is at the center of the film.

Zilberman devised several ingenious responses to these conundrums, but in the end the answers were fundamental.

“We have to be responsible,” he said. “We did lots of research, four years of research, talking to everyone, reading all the material, the court files and transcripts, the investigations by the police and the security services.”


His chief researcher even spoke to Amir in prison by telephone.

Of course, it’s not enough to “let the facts speak for themselves,” as the cliché goes.

Inevitably, Zilberman and co-screenwriter Ron Leshem (author of the novel Beaufort) had to deal with how they would depict Yigal Amir.

The film begins as the initial Oslo agreement is announced on the White House lawn and follows the events as Amir experiences them. Amir, played by Yehuda Nahari Halevi, is almost never off-camera. Yet we watch him, both metaphorically and sometimes literally from a distance. That effect was the product of careful planning by Zilberman and his excellent cinematographer Amit Yasour.

“We decided that in every scene [Amir] will be there, we will not cut into security or surveillance or television footage, we are always following him [directly],” the filmmaker said. “[Audiences] are accustomed to the [central character] being someone we like to identify with. That’s not the case here. [Yasour and I] decided to film events from Amir’s point of view, but never to allow for identification.”

Think about the master of cinematic identification, Alfred Hitchcock. Hitch is constantly cutting between his protagonist and what the hero sees and, through that cross-cutting, we are brought into the mind of that hero and we identify with him. But Zilberman cleverly eschews the reverse-angle shot of the object of Amir’s gaze. Audiences watching Incitement will feel that they are watching Amir at an emotional remove; they see what he is doing and what he is seeing but won’t necessarily feel a kinship with him.

Zilberman explained, “The decision was to use two main shots for Amir. We see him in an over-the-shoulder tracking shot, so we see his point of view but without seeing him [react]. Or we see him in a close-up but always from the side, in an awkward camera set-up, so we see him not as a hero but as someone whose brain we’re trying to get inside of. We see his point of view but not in a comfortable way.”
Over the shoulder, but hardly off the cuff:
Yehuda Nahari Halevi as Yigal Amir

The effectiveness of such directorial choices is largely carried by Halevi’s performance. He was, Zilberman says candidly, cast because audiences were unfamiliar with him.

“He acted in some TV shows, but he’s relatively unknown,” the director said. “That worked to our advantage because the audience could see him but wouldn’t remember him from other projects. He could immerse himself in the role completely,” with no prior associations to cloud viewers’ responses.

Halevi really did immerse himself in Yigal Amir. He and Zilberman worked together for a year in preparation. The actor enveloped himself in Amir’s world, as if it were a mikvah, wearing tzitzit and a kippah, going to shul and praying three times a day. He watched hours of footage of the real Amir and read hundreds of pages of the killer’s words.


 Father and Son (Amitai Yaish ben Ousilio and Yehuda Nahari Halevi)

The result rewards all that work. It would be worse than flippant to say that Halevi “becomes” Amir, but his stunning performance carries the film, from the opening images of the young man cleaning a family grave to the final image of him fading into the darkest recesses of history.

As for the impact on Amir of the various authorities who spurred him on, that is a difficult issue that the film handles deftly. A lot of screen time is spent in the debates among the ultra-right nationalist rabbinate as to whether Rabin is “an informant” or “a pursuer,” an active conspirator against Israel or just a dupe, and the discussions are presented with admirable clarity. Zilberman and Leshem depict the rabbis behind Amir as a spectrum running from fervent, even irrational true believers to cynics who will wink at the assassin’s plans without overtly endorsing them. The screenplay is also careful to note that there were authorities like Rabbi Soloveitchik who categorically and emphatically rejected any justification for murdering Rabin. As Amir’s father says, “a Jew doesn’t kill another Jew, whatever the reason.” To its credit, Incitement also insists on the multi-faceted nature of the anti-Oslo community; Zilberman shows the fractures and divisions – Ashkenazim vs. Mizrahim, class divisions, racism against Yemenite Jews like the Amirs, and basic differences of opinion and ideology.

But why this film now?

“In every election in Israel they talk about the assassination,” Zilberman said. “It’s a conversation that’s alive every year, everywhere in the world. People will see the film as a cautionary tale, perhaps they will take more responsibility for their words and actions and inciting people against others. It’s a responsibility we all have.”

Some of this material previously appeared in the Jewish Week.


Wednesday, April 08, 2020

More Goodies on the Way

If I were a real shut-in (God forbid), the COVID-19 pandemic would seem like manna from heaven. Those of us who are used to indulging a passion for cinema under normal circumstances probably have never thought about the homebound for whom keeping up with contemporary film matters used to be a hit-or-miss phenomenon. Of course the advent of VOD and streaming channels has changed that quite a bit, but the current state of affairs, with theaters shuttered across the globe, has now upt us all on an even footing.

Homebound or self-quarantining or "safe at home," whatever your status, there's a lot of new and new-ish cinema at your fingertips. Here's a quick run-through of stuff that's crossed my virtual desk n the past couple of days.

Bela Tarr's gigantic, ironic, iconic tome on the rather dubious joys of post-Communist, mud-soaked rural Hungary, Satantango, is coming out in a new 4K restored print. This wry seven-and-a-half hour masterpiece epitomizes the genuine joys and obvious challenges of the "slow cinema" movement at its finest. I've seen it twice and am thrilled at the opportunity to see it again, and that opportunity will come on April 17, courtesy of Film at Lincoln Center and Vimeo TV on Demand, with Kanopy, Amazon and iTunes joining in later.


As regular readers know, Film Forum is one of my favorite NYC-based venues, an splendid and innovative blend of new and old. Like so many other film palaces, Forum is dark right now, unless you go to their new streaming site and it's well worth the "trip." Among the titles currently available are The Wild Goose Lake, which I have reviewed in this space already, and new films from Ken Loach and Cornel Porumboiu. The repertory side of their business isn't neglected either, with a restored print of Visconti's final film, The Innocent on offer. You can find out more here. And Friday, they will be adding Incitement and Beanpole, both of which I'll be discussing then.

I must admit that, with a few exceptions, the recent spate of Scandinavian cinema leaves me cold. (No pun inte -- aw, hell, really obvious pun completely intended -- you got a problem with that, Mac?) It's exciting and historically entirely appropriate that a new millennium brought about the rebirth of one of the great seedbeds of silent film, but for the most part I'm not won over. (Aki Kaurismaki being a major exception.) However, I'm always up for something new and if you haven't
seen any of the recent output from places Nordic or are more enthusiastic than I am, you'll be delighted to find that the Nordic International Film Festival, which takes place in October, is claiming an on-line screening place to be filled by works by their filmmaking alumni. There are many short films available for free and a batch of rentals available as well.

One of my favorite festival offerings last year was the charming documentary Circus of Books, which played Tribeca. It's a profile of the married couple, Karen and Barry Mason, who ran the very long-lived eponymous gay bookstore and porn shop in Los Angeles. A pair of middle-class, middle-aged Conservative Jews from the Midwest, they were unlikely purveyors of sexually explicit material, but as their daughter Rachel shows in the film, it turned out to be a felicitous match-up. The film will be coming, on-line and streaming, from Netflix on April 22, and I'll have more to say then.

Meet the Masons, a Nice Jewish Family of Porn Purveyors



Sunday, April 05, 2020

My Dream Job (or Answered Prayers)


I know for a fact that there are people who dream of having my job. I'll resist the basic urge to offer it to them, dirt cheap. I know there are many harder jobs than watching movies and then writing or teaching about them. And I really do enjoy what I do most of the time. This is never more true than when I'm interviewing documentarians. For the most part they are grateful for some attention and, despite the hype that non-fiction film is the "new" rock-and-roll or stand-up comedy or whatever your idea of cool hipness (or hip coolness?) is these days, the vast majority of non-fiction filmmakers don't make much money, don't get much attention and, with the exception of Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, don't get recognized on the street.

Talking to documentary filmmakers is usually a pleasure. If you want to sample some of that particular pleasure, you should definitely check out Westdoc On Line. The current featured interview, with the estimable Alex Gibney, is the latest in what is now a collection of fifty such conversations, and the respondents include such major talents as Steve James, RaMel Ross, Ondi Timoner and Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov, the directors of the exquisite Honeyland.

Alex Gibney, the Hardest-Working Man in Doc Biz?
(Paul Bruinooge—Patrick McMullan via Getty Image)

So, something to think about if you find yourself going back to a job that suddenly no longer exists a few months from now.

There's a new(ish) documentary about another poisoned chalice of a supposed dream job that I can recommend heartily. (The film, not the job.) Anthony Desiato grew up in Westchester in the '80s and '90s, a comic-book obsessed kid who hadn't an inkling that he would someday make a sprightly, often charming film, currently available on iTunes and from Amazon, about his most enduring employment experience, working in a comic book shop in Scarsdale, NY.

His new film, My Comic Shop Country, combines his personal story, tracing the rise and fall of Alternate Realities, the store at which he worked, alongside a surprisingly engrossing profile of the industry itself, which like so many other brick-and-mortar/mom-and-pop small businesses, is more or less on life support. As one of the store owners wryly says to him, "You know how to make a million dollars in the comic shop business? Start with two million."

Like it says on the tin

I'd say that's an old joke but as the film makes clear, it's not funny for the shop owners who are feeling the pressure of rising rent, fuel costs and the sheer difficulty of dealing with the unique challenges that the comic book publishers impose on these outlets. Central among these, as the film makes abundantly clear, is the absence of a return policy on unsold books. As a book author and former grievance officer for the National Writers Union, I can tell you that the return policy on books from mainstream, independent and academic publishers is painful for people who see their royalties whittled away by the reserve against return, but it's probably the only reason that indie booksellers can stay alive, returning the unsold and undamaged copies for some percentage of their outlay.

Comic books don't come with that policy -- I suspect that their comparative fragility may be one of the reasons -- so comic shops have to eat their unsold stock. As several of the store owners remind us, that leaves them with reduced margins and a long road to profitability.

I've never worked in retail. That is partly a choice and partly pure chance, but another theme that runs through Comic Shop is occasional thanklessness of the job. If you're seeking glamor, you've come to the wrong place. You will get to meet hundreds of like-minded customers, emotionally and intellectually committed to the comics art, and you very likely may have a chance to speak with your artistic heroes from the creative end of the industry.

But you will also spend countless hours arranging displays, shelving new titles, poring over balance sheets and arguing with the corporate types who populate the biggest operations, DC and Marvel.

In fact, one of the most eloquent interviewees in the film is Peter Levitz, former publisher of DC Comics and a defender of the comic stores who readily admits that the publishers could and should do more in support. Although he soft-pedals the culpability of the big companies, he seems almost sheepish when doing so.

As well he might be. One of the undercurrents running through Comic Shop is the immense importance of hand-selling, the one-to-one conversation of an enthusiastic and knowledgeable store owner or staffer with a customer. Over and over, the film shows us how that works in the real retail world. There is no substitute for it and when these stores disappear, there will be no one else doing it. (Sorry, Jeff Bezos, you don't own the entire world yet.)

Hand-selling or hand selling?
Comic Shop director Anthony Desiato with former colleagues from
Alternate Realities, (l. to r.) Nick Robison, Steve Oto and Bill Maio

At the heart of the film are a large cast of store owners and staff, whip-smart, funny people who are a walking tribute to their customers and the art that inspires them. I'm an old guy, as regular readers know, although my constant exposure to my undergrad students certainly has kept me from building up the obvious generationally fueled genre prejudices (and I was an avid comic book fan as a teen), but I must admit that I was simply dazzled by the participants in Desiato's film.

It is no small tribute to the filmmaker that every time he cuts away from the contemporary business to walk us through the personal stories of his friends and colleagues from Alternate Realities, my first impulse was mild annoyance. Gradually, however, as their story unfolds, I realized that Desiato's slaying of more personal demons was not just the film's starting point and structuring device. It is the spine that holds the entire movie together, a more intimate look at how some of the issues threatening this relatively tiny industry play out on a daily basis.

My Comic Shop Country ends with a mildly surprising 'reveal' that doesn't alter the film's message in any significant way, but which puts Desiato's personal agenda in a different light, underlining the very human impulse both to remember the experiences and people who shaped us when we were young and to try to preserve the human petri dishes that bred such memories. The result is not only an incisive look at a small, threatened slice of Americana, but a warm and funny portrait of the people who make it worth caring about, regardless of your reading tastes.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

History Is a Place in Time and Space

A few weeks (and a lifetime) ago, I wrote about Heimat Is a Place in Time, the latest film from German documentarian Thomas Heise. It is a dazzlingly beautiful black-and-white meditation on the impact of the past century on one German family. Of course, "one German family" encompasses many families and touches on the lives of hundreds of others with whom they came in contact. If that weren't clear from Heise's film, it certainly is now for those of us sitting at home glumly waiting for something to change globally and locally.

One thing that is happening at home is that Heise's film is available for streaming through Sunday, April 5, at https://vimeo.com/ondemand/heimattime.

At the time, here is what I said about the film for Jewish Week:

History moves slowly on the macro level. Yet, history is composed of those thousand tiny moments that, as individuals, we experience as fleeting, ephemeral. This tension is nearly impossible to express in film and yet 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 ten hours long. It needs to be.

Heimat Is a Space in Time, a non-fiction essay film by Thomas Heise, 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 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 three generations of his 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 in 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.

But Heise is drumming away, slowly, inexorably but almost imperceptibly over the film’s running time, at something else, perhaps at time itself. The visuals of Heimat Is a Space 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, deserted forests lead us into a different reality, a sense of time as 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.

“[W]ith 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 twenty 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.

Thomas Heise

That interview was considerably longer, more detailed and instructive than I had space for. Happily, there is no need for a limit on space in a blog. What follows is the e-mail interview in its entirety.

1
I found your film dazzling and its sheer complexity thrilled me. Talk about the process by which it was made. How much of it is the result of spur-of-the-moment decisions or improvisation? How much of the structure did you have in mind beforehand? There are some recurring images which really struck me – the car-carrier train(s) which show up repeatedly, for example.

I can hardly depict “from the outside” the conflicting situations that can be put down to instinctive decisions that were made amidst all the contradictory ideas and plans during the film’s preparation, shooting and editing. The film had occupied my thoughts for over twenty 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.

I spent an entire year transcribing the material with a student of mine, Georg Oberhumer, an expert in German studies. All the letters, diaries, notes, all the slips of paper that I had retained. In all, there were forty large files, obstinately arranged in chronological order. Along with photos and documents. A huge pile, and it was in my head as we embarked on filming. I carried that pile around within me, so to speak. The lot of it, every last sentence. It was buzzing like a beehive. It was strange when the shoot got underway, for we didn't have any fixed shooting script. During the early stages, we had the blindly adopted visual props: the crowd scenes at Ostkreuz Station in Berlin, for instance, which I had shot for this film ten years ago, but without knowing exactly what I was to do with the takes. Or, there was the railroad shunting yard in Vienna, which we had determined as a shooting location, and where we had our first two days of filming in February 2018.

The fact of the matter is at the time of filming none of the images we created had a specific place in the film. 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 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. Creating that image was the assigned task for Stefan. Functioning like clockwork, unstoppable, mostly without people. We executed all of this very objectively. In general, these sequences appear either between or after the narrated texts. In the final third of the film’s final-cut a man appears on the railway tracks in a shot filmed at night and vanishes into the distance. He is holding a long iron bar in his hand with which to uncouple the train carriages of a slowly moving train. The camera pans as the shunting wagons roll toward it and onward as far as the summit of the hump and beyond. We then hear the account of my arrest in October 1989 until a long shot of the entire shunting yard taken at night. Wagons rolling parallel, stoic and isolated on different tracks, while the narration goes: “Stop saying ´‘we,’ said one of the interrogators; just say ‘I.’”

Some other scenes were coincidental discoveries that we came across by the wayside. The shots, for example, with Little Red Riding Hood in the forest, the buckled highway and the huge wind turbines. I hadn’t a clue what we were going to do with the Little Red Riding Hood images. We came across those steel figures and the sign in a forest in Brandenburg not far from a castle of Bettina von Armin, in which I had been as a child. Many years previously, Bettina von Arnim had allowed the destitute Grimm Brothers to live in the castle and they are said to have discovered and written down the story of Little Red Riding Hood in that area.  Apparently, someone from that small village has now come up with the idea to install these figures in the middle of the forest, and to present them in an artistic manner, if I could call it such.

As a matter of fact there is the sign with a notice “According to legend, here stood Grandmother's house.” Though it’s not certain at all.  It was supposed to be there once upon a time. And behind the sign lies the forest and no trace whatsoever of the house. It’s quiet there, with only strange bird twitters and the rustling of dry grass to be heard. Amidst all of this those steel figures of a forester, a wolf, and a grandmother, and finally that of Little Red Riding Hood. In the long shot she appears like a maiden in a fairy tale, apart from the clumsy painting. In the close-up we discover that Little Red Riding Hood has the face of a boy. And at that moment in the film appears the photo of the little boy with the German flag: that’s me. That’s when the film really starts and continues until the narrator states loud and clear the word “I.”

Little Red Riding Hood’s boyish face fascinated me. And that the forest remains indifferent about the fact that nothing remains of the Grandmother’s conceivable house. That’s what the film is all about, about that which endures, that which is blown away, and how it affects us.

2
The film’s approach to its subjects is oblique, and the running time may prove daunting to most moviegoers. Obviously you were aware of that throughout the filmmaking process. How do you reconcile yourself to that knowledge? Is there some level on which you find yourself thinking, ‘well, they wouldn’t let me show my earlier work under the GDR, I guess this one will have almost as trouble finding an audience?”

While I understand your question, I can’t think about it in those terms. The film’s duration is something that arises from the work itself, at first over the course of the editing process. We might revise its duration during the process. Initially, I had assumed that the film would be about two hours long, and it was planned with this in mind. Even the number of shooting days was thus limited to twenty-eight days. I never thought about the audience. I was preoccupied with how the idea could be implemented and whether I would succeed in reducing the whole thing to a conclusive concept in terms of content and form, the concept being the finished film. It’s truly existential: I’ve now got to do something which I don't yet know what it will be. Everything else comes at a later stage.
Heimat is a Space in Time is not a film for major cinema chains that change their weekly program and with popcorn and all the rest. Still, the attendance figures for the film in the art-house movie theatres are actually good, not to mention the positive audience reactions. The film has been presented at many festivals worldwide; it has received numerous large and small awards, it has been screened in China and South Korea. In Japan it has received coverage in the press and people are interested in it. It has been sold to RAI, the Italian national broadcaster. Apparently, viewers do read subtitles for three-and-a-half hours. It will also be broadcast on German television and moreover at prime time and without any interruption. That said, documentary film, and especially such fragments of time, work when they have something to say. If they are good, they can endure a long time and can also find their audience over time. Precisely because they are raw fragments that are not easy to absorb. They’re challenging, one doesn’t digest them so easily.

Documentary films have lasted longer than the country in which they were made. Following the collapse of the Berlin Wall audiences could watch those films I was unable to screen in public during the lifetime of East German state. That didn’t harm the films the slightest. I have a very long, albeit biologically limited, breath. Yet, the films are still here and continue to be screened.

3.
In other interviews you’ve noted that you are essentially the last member of the family still alive. (Am I correct on this?) What made you decide to make the film with everyone else gone? Is it a film you wouldn’t have felt you could complete if your parents and brother were going to see it?

Where does the family begin, and where does it peter out?  These are decisions to be made. As far as the Heises are concerned, I’m probably the last in the line, officially speaking. In any case, I’m not aware of anyone else. I still have a few relatives in the U.S.A. and in England, but I’m the last of the Heises. I wasn’t in a position to make the film at an earlier stage. 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.

4.
Your formal choices fascinated me. There seems to be a dialectical tension at play in the apparent alternation of lateral and vertical tracking shots. Was that deliberate?

That’s what film editing is all about. Montage brings a film to life. It’s akin to a score one composes.


5.
The use of natural sound is also striking. What were you looking for on the soundtrack?

That’s a great question: what were you looking for on the soundtrack? I had a wonderful collaboration with the sound engineer Johannes Schmelzer, an Austrian jazz musician. I’m truly happy to have met him. At the Berlinale some years ago he asked me if he could work on the sound for me. That was a good idea.

I would often send him out into the surrounding countryside, away from the camera position. And then he would disappear into the landscape and come back at a later point after having recorded some wonderful sound-takes. Creaking trees, or some bird or other. He immediately grasped how image and sound are separate entities. His sound-takes impart something distinct, entirely independent of the visuals in the film.

To return to your question, what was I looking for? Silence. Just as we don’t use any imaging techniques, there are none, or hardly any parallel sounds that are synchronized with the image. What we see is a reality being forged. We can also filter out strange things within this reality. Cars are a case in point. At a very early stage I noticed that practically no motor vehicles appear in the film, with the exception of the shots taken through the steamed-up window inside a tram in Vienna and at a street junction on the Schönhauser Allee in Berlin. Aside from those, no cars are to be seen. We only see them as products being transported about on trains. Nor is the din of road traffic to be heard. In our daily lives it’s an ubiquitous presence in our ears, but not in this film, where it’s scarcely noticeable. What we were seeking to do was to induce something that would stagger one’s perception of reality. It’s akin to that sign in the forest in the film’s opening segment: Something isn’t quite right. Care is called for. The rhythmic tones of the shunting yard, the rustling grass, the animal sounds, the wind turbines, the wind, a few drops of water, paper, the occasional airplane, creaking trees, clanging steel. These are the sounds. Mostly very subdued, you tune into them and listen. The film’s only loud sequences are those with the clanging steel that steamrolls everywhere and that song by Marika Rökk from a musical comedy dating back from 1944:

Don't look here, don't look there, just look straight ahead,
And what e'er may come, don’t lose your head

Not only are the sound takes excellent, but Martin Steyer's sound-mix is equally so. There’s also the sequence with the snow-covered cars in Mainz, even though that’s a real-life scene using original sound. It’s a short film about love during the Cold War. Any of these men appearing in that sequence could have been Udo.

6.
The natural and man-made imagery are both pretty bleak; the film’s visuals seem to consist largely of decay, detritus, desolation.

Do you think so ...? It’s somewhat akin to Little Red Riding Hood: with some luck, nature will re-emerge in our wake. 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. One of my favorite shots–– if I can put it that way––is the “drinking paradise” with the snowman behind the window, looking out onto Bahnhofstrasse. Who would conceive of such a setting? Steven King? Also, the cryptic runes with the “number one son-of-a-bitch.” Or, that ingrown bank at the lakeside. I've never seen anything like that. That is the small bathing beach with the gnarled oak trees, where, as children, we always used to swim in summer. In the lake with a dead sheep in it and a wary swan. I didn’t make any of that up: it was exactly like that.

 7
There is also a noticeable absence of human beings, except in extreme long shots or masses of people who we see only briefly. Would you talk about that juxtaposition with the texts which are intimate and very personal?

First of all, it’s difficult to have an off-voice for long periods in a film. The images distract one from the text if too much is happening in them. That said, however, a text quickly becomes annoying, for it in turn distracts from the image. It was a crucial decision to do everything with one single voice and not to sub-divide the texts between different actors. Initially, I had assumed that an actress would narrate all the texts. I had a message for the camera crew that the film should have the rhythm of a solar eclipse. That is a calm, but yet very compelling and fluid movement. One can’t interrupt it, one can’t stop it midway, one can’t escape it. That is also the tempo we used for the camera pans, and in the transversal movements, as well as the speed of the train-wagons. This peculiar pace and absence of human beings create a space that enable audiences to follow the texts. Or, that’s what I assume in any case.

When filming got underway, we set aside two days sets  in order to technically familiarize ourselves with the setting at the shunting yard.  Once I got down to editing the rushes, however, I didn’t start with the film’s opening section. For I didn’t as yet know what that might be. We started editing the sequences after a hypothetical unknown first third of the film, after Germany had been liberated. That is the section with Rosie’s story about her first-ever love affair in the winter of 1944/45 during a skiing vacation, her depiction of Dresden in the wake of aerial bombs attacks, and finally her complicated relationship with Udo across the different occupation zone borders in occupied Germany. It starts at the point when they first get to know each other in 1948 and culminates with their separation in 1952. A first great love, told as a self-contained tale. And in-between lots of other love stories involving Rosie and Udo and finally one that endures. Rosie’s diary comes to an end at this point. As do Udo’s letters. Udo talks to Rosie, while Rosie talks to herself. This was fascinating and at this juncture we started seeking out the form for the film; we were in search of the dialogue between image, text, and sound. The at-times grotesque love stories, coupled with the protagonists respective reflections on the situation in the world, their commentaries on films and books were enlightening and not lacking in humor. At the same time, their stories furnished a precise image of the characters, as well as the prevailing historical circumstances. We edited the sequence without thinking about what would come beforehand or afterward. That’s when we started to work with the landscapes. With the letters that glide through the images like railway carriages. It begins and ends in the snow, and the whole thing with the men in Rosie’s life is still not clear. Whereupon a new love comes in the night and two sons are born. They depict a worldview and clobber each other warily. I narrated all the texts as a dummy in our cutting editor’s child’s room, whenever we needed to make some headway. I stuck with this procedure throughout the entire editing process: there were no separate voice recording sessions and the constant use of the child’s room. Udo’s endless love letters, my mother Rosemarie’s rueful monologues in her diary.

The opening landscapes in this episode were shot in the countryside in Saxony, not far from the where the original events occurred. Whereas the diary speaks of night, the visuals show icy snow-laden landscapes in daylight, with glistening clouds. Thereafter, we increasingly adopted this approach in how to structure things. On completing the section that focused on Udo and Rosie, we viewed it: it was a good hour-and-a-half long and it became clear to us that filming would take significantly longer than we had planned and calculated for. We decided not to worry about it, however, and just to keep working away on it, section by section. Our approach was somewhat archeological in that we were putting together broken fragments. Over time it was interesting to discover how and when a particular episode started and how and when it ended. We would then continue with the preceding section, with the love story between Udo and Rosie as a reference in the back of our minds. Basically, just as with the filming process, whose sole guide was that vast referential pile from the transcripts in my head, there was no shooting script. Yet, there was enough resonance space in which to keep discovering things, spaces, and landscapes that coherently fell into place in this pile. Some of them even became a vantage point.


 8.
The visuals are stunning. Tell me about the decision to shoot in black-and-white and about your cinematographer.

In the past I also liked to shoot in black-and-white. It transcends all prevailing trends. It creates a distance to the object; it clarifies matters and can be imbued with great beauty. That’s enough. Particularly in winter. I really wanted snow, so that’s why we shot the film in February. I love the winter light. The numbing frost in February 2018, from which we suffered a lot in the open countryside, was a lucky break for us. The ice crystals. It’s not all in black-and-white, however. The film begins in color. A few official documents, such as the I.D. cards and the transport lists are also in color. Some of the few photos as well. And the painted image with the bearded man, the German flag and the huge paws that appear after the credits. My brother Andreas made that in 1961. The man with the big paws in it is Walter Ulbricht, who was the General Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany. My brother and I were in the children’s section of the party’s youth organization at the time.

The cinematographer is Stefan Neuberger, from Bavaria. We first got to know each other in 2014 at the Volksbühne in Berlin, where I was working jointly with Robert Nickolaus and Stefan on a larger-scale installation for its centenary celebrations. Robert, with whom I had previously worked in Mexico and Argentina, brought him along. He had just become a father and needed more time with his wife and their newly-born twins. Stefan and I quickly got on very well at work; he is my first Bavarian friend and a very precise worker. He lives with a Swedish woman and has a relationship to the North like I have to the desert. That has worked out well and we’ve been working together ever since. 

9.
To what extent were you raised with a Jewish identity? Did it come into play in making the film?

I knew what the film is about, and it’s not Jewish identity. The filming had nothing to do with that. Not for me. The film is about my identity. 

10.
I don’t know how a German viewer would respond to the film but for a Jewish-American like me the constant presence of trains in a German setting can only have one significance. Given your family history, I’m guessing that’s not an accident.

I can understand that quite well, but its significance is only one of shifting references. The shunting yard demonstrates a functioning system in action, in which connections are made or severed, and then put together one again. Biographical trajectories run parallel to one another; they intersect, meet, and separate once again. There’s a figure of speech in German about someone’s “facial features being derailed.” Generally speaking, that means that they have lost their shape. A life, too, can go “off the rails.” Wheels steamroll for victory. They can be deployed to take one on a journey or for deportation. The preceding text, such as Wilhelm’s homework essay from 1912 in this instance, furnishes the subsequent images of the tanker trains at night a meaning, namely that of war. The public knows that it erupted shortly after he wrote that essay. They might, however, just view the sequence as oil or fuel being transported by train. They will draw their own conclusions. Not one single piece of correspondence is associated with the shunting yard. That was important to me. It’s the transport lists that glide through the images like an endless train.

The living people going up and down the stairs at Berlin’s Ostkreuz station in the second section about Rosie and Udo correspond to those on the lists of deportees in the opening section, on the anticipated lists of the dead of those soon to be murdered. By contrast, the correspondence from the Hirschhorns to Edith and Wilhelm in Berlin corresponds to the voices of all those being deported in that scene. Just as Udo’s letters and Rosie’s diary represent the potential voices for the people rushing at the station.

10
Ultimately, the film suggests a certain sad resignation about the future. Are you pessimistic about the future of Europe? Germany?

A degree of audacity is required to be optimistic about the future. I haven’t in any way given up. We are, probably much more than we are willing to realize, living through a fundamental metamorphosis or a state of upheaval. That’s what interests me.

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