Title Image: Rem­nants of post­poned futures from Mate­r­i­al; still from Mate­r­i­al. Dir. Thomas Heise, Ger­many 2009. DVD Edi­tion Film­mu­se­um 56, 2011.

 8-1 | Table of Con­tents | DOI 10.17742/IMAGE.GDR.8-1.5 | Ebbrecht-Hart­man­nPDF

Abstract | Visu­al media played a cru­cial role on near­ly all lev­els of every­day pri­vate and pub­lic life in the GDR. This essay intends to read­just the focus on GDR visu­al his­to­ry by inves­ti­gat­ing its mar­gins, includ­ing ephemer­al and semi-offi­cial film archives beyond the “offi­cial” state-con­trolled pro­duc­tion of images. It does not reex­am­ine such ephemer­al cin­e­mat­ic rem­nants as his­tor­i­cal sources but rather as traces that have to be under­stood in con­text and appro­pri­at­ed, arranged, and re-read, assem­bling them as frag­ments of the past. The spe­cif­ic focus here is on the works of Thomas Heise, a film­mak­er who—although pro­hib­it­ed from pro­duc­ing and pub­licly releas­ing films dur­ing the exis­tence of the GDR—managed to cre­ate dur­ing that time var­i­ous audio and visu­al arti­facts as con­tri­bu­tions to archives for the future. 
Résumé | En la RDA les médias visuels ont joué un rôle cru­cial dans presque tous les domaines de la vie quo­ti­di­enne, qu’elle soit privée ou publique. Cet essai a pour but de réa­juster le focus sur l’histoire visuelle de la RDA en exam­i­nant ses marges, en inclu­ant les archives éphémères et semi-offi­cielles au-delà de la pro­duc­tion “offi­cielle” d’images. Cet essai ne réex­am­ine pas ces ves­tiges ciné­matographiques éphémères en tant que sources his­toriques, mais comme des traces devant être com­pris­es dans un cer­tain con­texte, appro­prié, arrangé et re-lu. Cette dis­cus­sion sur les traces ciné­matographiques éphémères ain­si que les tech­niques d’assemblage de frag­ments du passé explore l’oeuvre de Thomas Heise, un réal­isa­teur unique dans son genre qui – bien qu’il soit inter­dit de pro­duire et de met­tre en cir­cu­la­tion publique­ment des films sous le régime de la RDA – a créé pen­dant ce temps des arte­facts audios et visuels comme con­tri­bu­tions aux archives pour l’avenir.

Tobias Ebbrecht-Hart­mann | Hebrew Uni­ver­si­ty, Jerusalem

Archives for the Future:
Thomas Heise’s Visual Archeology

Born in 1955, Thomas Heise belongs to what has been called the GDR’s first gen­er­a­tion, born and raised under social­ism. His father, Wolf­gang Heise, was a well-known pro­fes­sor of phi­los­o­phy at the Hum­boldt Uni­ver­si­ty, a mem­ber of the GDR’s intel­lec­tu­al “nobil­i­ty” whom dis­si­dent poet Wolf Bier­mann praised as the only real philoso­pher in the GDR. After grad­u­at­ing from sec­ondary school, Thomas com­plet­ed a trainee­ship in a print­ing fac­to­ry and, fol­low­ing the oblig­a­to­ri­ly mil­i­tary ser­vice, he began work­ing as an assis­tant at the state-con­trolled DEFA film stu­dios. From there he was del­e­gat­ed to study at the GDR’s state film school in Babels­berg dur­ing the late 1970s and ear­ly 1980s. How­ev­er, after the school’s film pro­duc­tion com­mit­tee reject­ed one of his stu­dent films and severe­ly crit­i­cized and then banned his fol­low-up projects, Heise left the school before fin­ish­ing his stud­ies and was pro­hib­it­ed from pro­duc­ing and pub­licly releas­ing any films. In the cen­tral­ized and high­ly con­trolled GDR cul­tur­al sphere, this meant he had to seek alter­na­tive places to real­ize at this point his cre­ative vision.

The pos­si­bil­i­ty of work­ing with drama­tist and the­ater direc­tor Hein­er Müller at the Berlin­er Ensem­ble the­atre in East Berlin pro­vid­ed Heise with just such a space; he start­ed work­ing there in 1987, dur­ing the last phase of the GDR’s exis­tence. Accord­ing to Heise, he received a Pana­son­ic MVVHS cam­era from a West Ger­man film pro­duc­er who had planned to make a doc­u­men­tary about Müller (Heise, “Arbeit” 272), which enabled him to col­lect visu­al mate­r­i­al dur­ing the GDR’s last years. As Müller’s assis­tant he began observ­ing and record­ing scenes at the the­atre and doc­u­ment­ed social and polit­i­cal changes in East Ger­man soci­ety. Com­bined with oth­er rem­nants of var­i­ous film projects, Heise lat­er gath­ered this footage in his film Mate­r­i­al (2009). “Something’s always left over,” he states in the open­ing sequence of this film, echo­ing Hein­er Müller’s dic­tum on “lone­ly texts wait­ing for his­to­ry” (Müller 187). The voice over con­tin­ues: “Rem­nants that don’t work out. So images lie around wait­ing for a sto­ry.” Mate­r­i­al gath­ers these frag­ment­ed rem­nants of GDR his­to­ry and devel­ops strate­gies for mak­ing them read­able in the present. In this sense, many of Heise’s projects since the fall of the Berlin Wall have focused on the sta­tus of films as archives and on archived films. His inter­est in these films lies not in their capac­i­ty to reveal oth­er­wise miss­ing knowl­edge about East Ger­man soci­ety but rather as tes­ti­mo­ny to poten­tial and unre­al­ized futures in the GDR, at least in the case of his own work. His meth­ods of archiv­ing and his archived films present aspects of polit­i­cal and social life that were most­ly invis­i­ble in offi­cial visu­al records, even in those East Ger­man films and doc­u­men­taries that attempt­ed to com­mu­ni­cate hid­den and cod­ed mes­sages about social real­i­ty. As a result, these unfin­ished or locked-away movies are archives for the future, a col­lec­tion of reject­ed, banned, and lost frag­ments that had a delayed entry into the GDR’s visu­al mem­o­ry, after the coun­try and its regime had disappeared.

Mean­while Heise has become a renowned doc­u­men­tary film­mak­er who has pro­duced nine­teen films in the past twen­ty-five years. Footage for five of them had been shot in the GDR but was nev­er pub­licly screened. In addi­tion to Mate­r­i­al, which con­tains some of the footage that Heise shot between 1987 and 1991, these films include: Wozu denn über diese Leute einen Film? (So Why Make a Film about These Peo­ple?), made in 1980 but pub­licly shown only after 1990; Das Haus 1984 (The House 1984) and Volk­spolizei 1985 (The People’s Police Force 1985), both released in 2001; and Der Aus­län­der (The For­eign­er, 1987) about Hein­er Müller, which was fin­ished in 2004. The first film that con­tained footage from the 1980s was Vater­land (Father­land, 2002), and already Heise’s first full-length doc­u­men­tary made after 1989/90, Eisen­zeit (Iron Time, 1991), was based on a pre­vi­ous­ly unfin­ished project from 1981 (Dell and Rothöh­ler 13). These cin­e­mat­ic works func­tion as archives for the future that intro­duced a spe­cif­ic form of visu­al arche­ol­o­gy from the mar­gins of East Ger­man soci­ety. After the Babels­berg film school admin­is­tra­tion reject­ed Wozu denn über diese Leute einen Film? Heise stored and pre­served his footage in most­ly hid­den spaces or semi-offi­cial archives, among them the archive of the Babels­berg school itself and the GDR’s State Film Archive.[1]

What is an “archive for the future”? The notion is informed by Jacques Derrida’s propo­si­tion to con­sid­er not the archive’s func­tion to pre­serve the past but its prospec­tive function:

[T]he ques­tion of the archive is not […] a ques­tion of the past. It is not a ques­tion of a con­cept deal­ing with the past that might already be at our dis­pos­al or not at our dis­pos­al, an archiv­able con­cept of the archive. It is a ques­tion of the future, the ques­tion of the future itself, the ques­tion of a response, of a promise and of a respon­si­bil­i­ty of tomor­row. The archive: if we want to know what that will have meant, we will only know in times to come. (37)

The footage that Heise col­lect­ed for the select­ed films I dis­cuss here con­sti­tut­ed archival mate­r­i­al in pre­cise­ly this sense: for an unknown and unspe­cif­ic future, for fric­tions and tran­si­tions “to come.” Edit­ed from this footage and screened after years of delay, these films respond to Derrida’s unre­al­ized futures. As such, they resem­ble what Siegfried Kra­cauer in his final, unfin­ished book on his­to­ry defined as “lost caus­es” and “unre­al­ized pos­si­bil­i­ties” that con­sti­tute traces to be unrav­eled only in ret­ro­spect (199). Sev­er­al of Heise’s films pro­vide a mod­el for this con­cept of the archives for the future and sug­gest the need to reeval­u­ate these rem­nants and left­overs of East Ger­man visu­al cul­ture as “lost caus­es” that simul­ta­ne­ous­ly reveal a van­ished East Ger­man real­i­ty and poten­tial but unre­al­ized futures.

Images Waiting for a Story

Heise’s insis­tence in the open­ing state­ment of Mate­r­i­al that the “images lie around wait­ing for a sto­ry” ascribes a cer­tain agency to the archival images appro­pri­at­ed in the film. Not mere­ly rest­ing pas­sive­ly in archives, this mate­r­i­al is also active­ly “wait­ing for a sto­ry.” Horst Bre­dekamp calls this inde­pen­dent activ­i­ty of images a Bil­dakt or image action. Refer­ring to paint­ings and visu­al arts more gen­er­al­ly, he claims that the inter­de­pen­den­cy of image and recip­i­ent includes an active role on the part of the image in which it can adopt the posi­tion of enun­ci­a­tor (59). In this sense, images not only pas­sive­ly reflect the past but also exer­cise a “for­ma­tive pow­er of form” that, like social actors or insti­tu­tions, has the abil­i­ty to shape his­to­ry (Paul).[2] Mate­r­i­al con­tra­dicts the dom­i­nant per­cep­tion of the Wende (the tran­si­tion to Ger­man uni­fi­ca­tion in 1989-90) as a nar­ra­tive of progress, seek­ing a dif­fer­ent mode that would cre­ate a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive on the same events. And indeed, Heise’s footage par­tic­i­pates in the (re)shaping of his­to­ry in just the sense of active images. Heise appar­ent­ly assem­bles the footage from the years before and after 1989/90 in a con­tin­gent and unsys­tem­at­ic order: images of ruined hous­es in Halle give way to squat­ted streets in East Berlin; from Hein­er Müller’s work in the the­atre the film shifts to the mass ral­lies at Alexan­der­platz in Novem­ber 1989; state­ments from pris­on­ers and prison guards are fol­lowed by images of left-lean­ing activists inter­rupt­ing the pre­miere of Heise’s doc­u­men­tary film about East Ger­man skin­heads, Stau—Jetzt geht’s los (Jammed—Let’s Get Going, 1992). This loose order pro­vides no coher­ent chronol­o­gy of the events, yet its frag­men­tary form chal­lenges the view­er with demands to deal with the footage actively.

His­to­ri­ans of the GDR have coined the con­cept of Eigensinn or obsti­na­cy to char­ac­ter­ize a wide­spread but sub­dued form of agency prac­ticed in East Ger­man soci­ety that com­pli­cates its image of an oppres­sive, total­i­tar­i­an soci­ety. Accord­ing to Andrew Port, Eigensinn has “become one of the most pop­u­lar con­cepts used to describe a wide range of behav­ior in East Ger­many, all of which sug­gests that the so-called mass­es were not just pas­sive vic­tims, that they held ‘agency’” (5). Thomas Lin­den­berg­er specif­i­cal­ly sees in Eigensinn an expres­sion of a “sense-of-one­self” (32), a sen­si­bil­i­ty for indi­vid­ual agency based on “per­cep­tions and inter­pre­ta­tions of real­i­ty, con­ceiv­ing of them as a fac­tor of cre­ativ­i­ty in their own right” (51). More­over, Alf Lüdtke, one of those his­to­ri­ans who pop­u­lar­ized the con­cept, relates Eigensinn to the medi­um of GDR pho­tog­ra­phy and the con­struc­tive dimen­sion of pro­duc­ing and per­ceiv­ing images. In this con­text, he explic­it­ly refers to exam­ples from the mar­gins of estab­lished and offi­cial­ly accept­ed image pro­duc­tion, includ­ing images made by semi-pro­fes­sion­al and even ama­teur pho­tog­ra­phers (232).

Semi-offi­cial and semi-pro­fes­sion­al images such as those appro­pri­at­ed in Mate­r­i­al con­sti­tute a spe­cif­ic visu­al ele­ment shaped by incom­plete­ness and frag­men­ta­tion. As doc­u­men­tary footage, it serves both as a source in the his­to­ri­ans’ sense—i.e., a con­tain­er of his­tor­i­cal infor­ma­tion that needs to be eval­u­at­ed and crit­i­cal­ly interpreted—and as a trace in the Kra­cauer­ian sense men­tioned above. The term trace itself, how­ev­er, intro­duces ambiva­lent mean­ings. First, much like a foot­print, a trace indi­cates an index­i­cal rem­nant of past events. As a ref­er­ent it con­nects dif­fer­ent tem­po­ral­i­ties, but as a sig­ni­fi­er, not by pre­serv­ing the event itself. Sec­ond, a trace is often a detail that, much like a clue, can sug­gest a larg­er con­text. This dimen­sion cor­re­lates with Kracauer’s notion of “lost caus­es.” A trace is a ves­tige, a part of a whole that exists only as a mosa­ic of frag­ments and voids. Hence, the con­cept of traces also cor­re­sponds to the prac­tice of arche­ol­o­gy as a tech­nique of exca­vat­ing past remains.

In his recent study on visu­al cul­ture and mem­o­ry Steve Ander­son refers to arche­ol­o­gy in a man­ner that can also illu­mi­nate Heise’s projects: “the process of under­stand­ing how the past is trans­formed into mem­o­ry may be best described as an arche­ol­o­gy in which the goal is not sim­ply to uncov­er some­thing that has been buried but also to dis­cov­er how and why its mean­ings have changed and addi­tion­al lay­ers have been built up on it” (51). Films too can active­ly par­tic­i­pate in this arche­o­log­i­cal under­tak­ing through their spe­cif­ic visu­al tech­niques for explor­ing pho­to­graph­ic mate­r­i­al and cin­e­mat­ic doc­u­ments. Simon Rothöh­ler, for exam­ple, iden­ti­fies the inde­pen­dent agency of Heise’s visu­al rem­nants as the “Eigen­rechtlichkeit des Mate­ri­als,” an intrin­sic right incor­po­rat­ed in the footage (97). He argues that doc­u­men­tary films pur­sue his­to­ri­o­graph­i­cal ambi­tions, not only by retelling sto­ries from the past but also by active­ly writ­ing his­to­ry (10). Cit­ing Kracauer’s anal­o­gy between film and his­to­ry, Rothöh­ler claims that film’s inher­ent abil­i­ty both to bear wit­ness and to pro­vide mul­ti­ple per­spec­tives on the past con­tributes to the under­stand­ing of past events (21). Thus, the col­lec­tion of details and the focus on seem­ing­ly irrel­e­vant aspects (23) resem­ble Kracauer’s idea of “lost caus­es,” which are con­sti­tu­tive for a visu­al arche­ol­o­gy of GDR society.

Clip 1: Sequence depict­ing the protest ral­ly on Novem­ber 4, 1989, from Mate­r­i­al (2009). Dir. Thomas Heise, DVD Edi­tion Film­mu­se­um 56, 2011.

When Heise pre­sent­ed his film com­pi­la­tion Mate­r­i­al at the 2009 Berlin Film Fes­ti­val, his visu­al arche­ol­o­gy had reached full fruition. Com­prised exclu­sive­ly of footage he had shot pri­vate­ly in the 1980s and dur­ing the Wende and its imme­di­ate after­math, the film devel­ops a set of spe­cif­ic cin­e­mat­ic tech­niques to inves­ti­gate visu­al traces of the GDR with the goal of con­tribut­ing to the writ­ing of East Ger­man his­to­ry. These include rec­og­niz­able Brecht­ian strate­gies such as the use of cam­era angles that dif­fer from icon­ic tele­vi­sion images, the inte­gra­tion of inter­ti­tles to com­ment and reflect on the screened footage, and voiceover com­men­tary to explain the film’s arche­o­log­i­cal approach—all aim­ing to “the­ma­tize the very his­tor­i­cal appa­ra­tus and draw our atten­tion to a set of unre­solved his­tor­i­cal con­tra­dic­tions” (Kout­sourakis 252-53). In a sig­nif­i­cant sequence, for exam­ple, Heise appro­pri­ates footage of a protest ral­ly from Novem­ber 4, 1989 at Berlin’s Alexan­der­platz. [Clip 1] We approach the speak­ers, some rec­og­niz­able as lead­ing fig­ures of the regime, from an odd angle unlike offi­cial media rep­re­sen­ta­tions. The image is periph­er­al­ly locat­ed at the mar­gins of the his­tor­i­cal moment, embed­ded with­in the protest­ing crowd but not absorbed by it. This dis­tan­ci­a­tion becomes obvi­ous in the sec­ond part of the sequence when the camera—acting as what Dell and Rothöh­ler term a “micro-his­tor­i­cal coun­ter­shot” (12)—pans the pro­tes­tors as they sing the com­mu­nist anthem “The Inter­na­tion­al.” Know­ing nei­ther the sto­ry these images would tell nor the his­to­ry they could doc­u­ment, the footage cap­tured a par­tic­u­lar or even para­dox­i­cal mea­sure of time. Because it clear­ly dif­fers from the now-famil­iar tele­vi­sion images of the Wende, it enables a dif­fer­ent view on the over-medi­at­ed events. Simul­ta­ne­ous­ly it pre­serves the poten­tial­i­ty of a future course of his­to­ry that was nev­er real­ized. When the cam­era turns away from the speak­ing politi­cians and focus­es on the ordi­nary par­tic­i­pants who start chant­i­ng “The Inter­na­tion­al,” it points to the moment of an unre­al­ized future through a pre­cise inter­play of images, voic­es, and inter­ti­tles that high­lights the lines of the anthem and res­onates as a response to the future from the past.[3]

Focus­ing specif­i­cal­ly on the periph­er­al visu­al angles, Rothöh­ler links this for­mal per­spec­tive to Kracauer’s thoughts about micro-his­to­ry. While macro-his­to­ry refers to a broad and uni­ver­sal con­cept that sug­gests a process of fil­ter­ing and har­mo­niz­ing diver­gent, frag­ment­ed, and ephemer­al per­spec­tives, a micro-his­tor­i­cal approach respects the material’s inher­ent needs and demands (Rothöh­ler 97). Fur­ther­more, the objects of his­to­ry, here the footage itself, par­tic­i­pate active­ly in the writ­ing of his­to­ry. The images gain his­to­ri­o­graph­i­cal agency. Indeed, Heise states: “The mate­r­i­al pro­vides the form. It’s like dig­ging some­thing up or turn­ing it over. There is this strange idea that came to me all of a sud­den and has nev­er gone away: a sto­ry, con­sid­ered lon­gi­tu­di­nal­ly, is actu­al­ly a tan­gled mass” (“Thoughts” 228). Heise’s film pro­pos­es new audio­vi­su­al con­stel­la­tions, which reveal hid­den rela­tions and at the same time refuse the com­mon per­spec­tive of the always far-too-close or far-too-dis­tant tele­vi­sion images that define our visu­al mem­o­ry of the Autumn 1989 events.

This for­mal strat­e­gy gives rise to a para­dox­i­cal tem­po­ral­i­ty, which Kra­cauer describes as “his­tor­i­cal rel­a­tiv­i­ty”: “Because of the antin­o­my of its core, time not only con­forms to the con­ven­tion­al image of a flow but must also be imag­ined as being not such a flow” (His­to­ry 199). This antin­o­mi­an tem­po­ral­i­ty is best expressed, accord­ing to Kra­cauer, in a spa­tial image: the “cataract of times” that is char­ac­ter­ized by “‘pock­ets’ and voids […] vague­ly rem­i­nis­cent of inter­fer­ence phe­nom­e­na” (199). Films such as Mate­r­i­al, which explore ephemer­al “lost caus­es” through visu­al arche­ol­o­gy, can be elu­ci­dat­ed by the metaphor “cataract of times.” The mon­tage of archival images as a tan­gled mass of visu­al rem­nants con­sti­tutes a cin­e­mat­ic cataract, which on the one hand estab­lish­es a visu­al flow through time and on the oth­er encap­su­lates spe­cif­ic moments in time. Fur­ther­more, Material’s tem­po­ral­i­ty cre­ates “‘pock­ets’ and voids” in which “unre­al­ized pos­si­bil­i­ties” can sur­face. As the­mat­ic clus­ters, which dwell on spe­cif­ic, often even ran­dom and con­tin­gent sit­u­a­tions, these pock­ets and voids inter­fere with the image flow. This dis­rup­tion pro­duces what Kra­cauer describes as “a Utopia of the in-between—a ter­ra incog­ni­ta in the hol­lows between the lands we know” (His­to­ry 217). In such a cin­e­mat­ic con­stel­la­tion, the images them­selves can incor­po­rate Eigensinn as a form of agency, wait­ing, as Heise empha­sizes, for a sto­ry and then pro­vid­ing the form for this sto­ry. Both Heise’s films and the visu­al rem­nants they appro­pri­ate pos­sess the agency of Eigensinn. In this con­text, it is no coin­ci­dence that the idea of active images as it was famous­ly intro­duced by W.J.T Mitchell in his book What do Pic­tures Want is derived from Marx’s con­cept of fetishism, which Mitchell defines as “the sub­jec­tiv­i­ty of objects, the per­son­hood of things” (30). It should be not­ed that Heise’s arche­o­log­i­cal approach also adopts basic ideas of Marx­ist thought but then inverts them; his work trans­forms the Marx­ist con­cept of fetishism into an agency of images that under­mines the ide­o­log­i­cal posi­tion of East Ger­man media in the same man­ner as his archives for the future invert the future-ori­ent­ed pathos for­mu­lae of state offi­cials (Sabrow).

Memories of Missed Opportunities

This inver­sion of the future-ori­ent­ed but emp­ty pathos of the GDR’s ide­ol­o­gy res­onates strong­ly in the 1991 film Eisen­zeit, Heise’s first attempt to col­lect and pre­serve mate­r­i­al for the future.  Short­ly after the fall of the Berlin Wall he had vis­it­ed the city of Eisen­hüt­ten­stadt, locat­ed close to the Ger­man-Pol­ish bor­der. Estab­lished in 1950 as Stal­in­stadt, the indus­tri­al city anchored by a new steel foundry was laid out as a social­ist mod­el town (the name was qui­et­ly changed in 1961). Yet when he vis­it­ed once again in 1990-91, the city had start­ed to decline, in tan­dem with the state that pro­ject­ed its ide­ol­o­gy of sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly planned progress at this site. Eisen­zeit was not just intend­ed as a por­trait of a declin­ing East Ger­man indus­tri­al area. Already in 1993, Marc Sil­ber­man had rec­og­nized in the film a “struc­tur­al frag­men­ta­tion of the film images and the tex­tu­al com­men­tary, a kind of aes­thet­ic cor­rel­a­tive for the mem­o­ry of illu­sions and missed oppor­tu­ni­ties” (28). Indeed, Eisen­zeit incor­po­rates the mem­o­ry of poten­tial futures and departs from the lost caus­es of an unfin­ished film. A decade ear­li­er, as a stu­dent at the Babels­berg film school, Heise had already envi­sioned a film project about young peo­ple in Eisen­hüt­ten­stadt. In this 1981 film with the work­ing title Anka und… (Anka and…), Heise set out to por­tray the first gen­er­a­tion of chil­dren born in what was called the “First Social­ist City of the GDR.” Per­haps fit­ting­ly, the film about an aban­doned youth gen­er­a­tion, lost in a shat­ter­ing storm of alleged progress that felt like per­ma­nent stag­nan­cy, was nev­er made. Heise lat­er described the end of the project. When the team arrived at Eisen­hüt­ten­stadt, a pro­duc­tion stu­dent from the film school told him that the munic­i­pal author­i­ties had with­drawn per­mis­sion to shoot in the city: “We didn’t man­age to do any shoot­ing, […] I could only make some audio record­ings with Tilo Paulukat, one of the four heroes in the film” (Heise, “Thoughts” 224). Despite ear­li­er sup­port on the part of his teach­ers, the film project was ulti­mate­ly can­celled by the school in coop­er­a­tion with the munic­i­pal admin­is­tra­tion. The only traces left are a let­ter from the film school’s head of pro­duc­tion to the city coun­cil of Eisen­hüt­ten­stadt, pre­served in pro­duc­tion files of the school, and the songs per­formed by the pro­ject­ed film’s pro­tag­o­nists, which Heise had taped and stored in his pri­vate archive.[4]

Ten years lat­er, after the GDR had ceased to exist, Heise returned to Eisen­hüt­ten­stadt and began work­ing on a film that was to take up and con­tin­ue the unfin­ished project. What had been planned orig­i­nal­ly as a por­tray­al of the city and its dis­en­chant­ed youth—and implic­it­ly a larg­er sto­ry about the GDR—became a visu­al essay about the van­ish­ing state, a frac­tur­ing soci­ety, and a gen­er­a­tion lost between the renounced past and a pre­car­i­ous future. The first full-length film pro­duced by Heise, Eisen­zeit nego­ti­ates these com­plex tem­po­ral­i­ties. On the one hand it is a cin­e­mat­ic time cap­sule, pre­serv­ing a par­tic­u­lar moment of tran­si­tion, and on the oth­er it assem­bles traces and rem­nants that were col­lect­ed in the past for an inde­ter­mi­nate future, a future after an as-yet-unimag­ined trans­for­ma­tion or end of the GDR:

Heise’s col­lage nar­rates the past by break­ing off and recom­menc­ing again and again, as if the mem­o­ries of friend­ship, home, lost dreams, and an unre­al­ized film were open wounds. As with many such doc­u­men­taries, the use of his­tor­i­cal footage (here from 1980) serves both as a con­trast to and an expla­na­tion for change: the present is mean­ing­ful only when seen his­tor­i­cal­ly. (Sil­ber­man 28)

Eisen­zeit pro­ceed­ed from and secured its unfin­ished pre­de­ces­sor. Accord­ing to Vrääth Öhn­er, it incor­po­rates a cin­e­mat­ic search for the left­over traces of the pro­posed Anka und… pro­tag­o­nists. Expe­ri­ences, mem­o­ries, and mate­r­i­al rem­nants had been stored away, pre­served for lat­er use, and in the revi­tal­ized 1991 film project embody Heise’s search for traces of his own past and for rem­nants of an unfin­ished film (60-61). As Heise him­self explained: “we used them [the audio record­ings with Tilo Paulukat made in 1981] ten years after for the film Eisen­zeit that I shot in 1991. At that time Tilo was already dead. He hang [sic] him­self on a hol­i­day week-end dur­ing his nation­al [mil­i­tary] ser­vice. The only things remain­ing were the old record­ings of his Neil Young song inter­pre­ta­tions” (“Thoughts” 224). Once again “lost caus­es,” the tapes, and an unfin­ished film caught in a con­di­tion of wait­ing and post­poned time ini­ti­ate a cin­e­mat­ic dia­logue between the present and the future.

Eisen­zeit links this con­cept of post­poned futures to the expe­ri­ence of time in the late GDR, serv­ing as a blue­print for Heise’s method of accu­mu­lat­ing mate­r­i­al and flu­id expe­ri­ences as “lost caus­es.” These pos­si­ble futures are not real­ized, thwart­ed, or reject­ed paths of life and dead ends; they do not emerge from the course of his­to­ry under­stood as a sto­ry of progress and suc­cess or of mak­ing sense. They exist instead in an in-between space, which is in our case the elu­sive space of film that absorbs the ephemer­al phe­nom­e­na of the phys­i­cal world to pro­tect them from for­get­ting. Eisen­zeit con­dens­es these thoughts already in its open­ing sequence. First the cam­era pans a wall mur­al depict­ing fig­ures in the mode of the “rev­o­lu­tion­ary roman­ti­cism” that typ­i­fied 1950s social­ist real­ism, cel­e­brat­ing a vision of the future that nev­er came to pass: work­ers, engi­neers, teach­ers, youth, and young fam­i­lies enjoy­ing the Labour Day hol­i­day [Fig. 1]. The col­or­ful mur­al con­veys a dynam­ic but uni­form striv­ing toward the future. The trav­el­ing cam­era inten­si­fies this ener­gy, ani­mat­ing the ide­al­ized sto­ry­line of con­stant progress. How­ev­er, the con­trastive inter­play of image and sound empha­sizes the implic­it notion of post­pone­ment. Heise attach­es to the images of a failed social­ist dream a song about the failed cap­i­tal­ist dream: Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush.” Here, dif­fer­ent tem­po­ral­i­ties of past, present, and future merge, yield­ing the inter­play of the agency of lost caus­es, the social­ist self-image embed­ded in the wall mur­al, and the songs taped by dis­il­lu­sioned social­ist youth. Young’s song is explic­it­ly linked to the sto­ry of Tilo and his friends, which was nev­er told because Heise’s stu­dent film project had been can­celled. What remained ten years lat­er was only his taped singing voice. The abrupt­ly appear­ing film title ded­i­cates Eisen­zeit to Tilo and his friends. The sound of a mov­ing train accom­pa­nies this title sequence, although we only see the image of a train after sev­er­al more min­utes (filmed through the win­dow of anoth­er train arriv­ing in Eisen­hüt­ten­stadt). The train is not only a vehi­cle that brings the view­ers into the city, which comes into focus when it arrives, but the train also sig­ni­fies the pas­sage of time and res­onates with Heise’s voiceover describ­ing his arche­o­log­i­cal con­cept: “Some­thing is always left over. Rem­nants that don’t work out.”

Failed Futures and Ephemeral Pasts

The way cin­e­mat­ic rem­nants of the East Ger­man past both encap­su­lat­ed and pre­served traces of pos­si­ble but unre­al­ized futures as well as failed oppor­tu­ni­ties is dis­tinct. Offi­cial GDR imagery ignored such fail­ures; evi­dence of failed oppor­tu­ni­ties doc­u­ment­ed acci­den­tal­ly was in most cas­es cen­sored, sup­pressed, or con­cealed. Heise once described the dif­fi­cul­ties of visu­al­ly express­ing real­i­ty in a soci­ety in which arti­fi­cial­i­ty char­ac­ter­izes the vis­i­ble and hid­den clues or implic­it ref­er­ences com­mu­ni­cate the real. He trans­formed this spe­cif­ic East Ger­man inter­play of the vis­i­ble and the non­vis­i­ble into an aes­thet­ic and his­to­ri­o­graph­i­cal approach: “In a dic­ta­tor­ship the idea is to amass hid­den stores of images and words, por­tray­ing the things that peo­ple liv­ing under the dic­ta­tor­ship might have actu­al­ly expe­ri­enced, but that could not nec­es­sar­i­ly be seen or heard. Then, when the dic­ta­tor­ship was no more, those images bore wit­ness to it” (“Arche­ol­o­gy” 9). In oth­er words, Heise revers­es the direc­tion of encoun­ters with past time. While the his­to­ri­an seeks mate­r­i­al, mem­o­ries, and traces that per­sist in the present in order to recon­struct the past, Heise col­lects in the present mate­r­i­al for the future, like an archivist or arche­ol­o­gist, hop­ing that the hid­den traces safe­guard­ed in this mate­r­i­al reveal in hind­sight the encap­su­lat­ed time. Giv­en the impos­si­bil­i­ty of con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous­ly releas­ing any of his films shot in the GDR, they func­tioned like mes­sages in a bot­tle. As post­poned doc­u­ments they did not aim to address the present, but rather respond­ed to an unknown future that was still incon­ceiv­able, poten­tial­ly beyond the exist­ing social­ist state.

The pri­mal scene of Heise’s archives for the future orig­i­nates in his inad­ver­tent expe­ri­ences as a stu­dent at the Babels­berg film school. Locat­ed close to the West Berlin bor­der in a sub­urb of Pots­dam, the school was a para­dox. While it pro­vid­ed a place to try out dif­fer­ent approach­es to film­mak­ing, its goal was to pre­pare stu­dents for employ­ment in the state-con­trolled media. They learned about cre­ative, even oppo­si­tion­al tra­di­tions of cin­e­ma his­to­ry, but stu­dent films were crit­i­cized for being Neo­re­al­ist or infect­ed by New Wave ten­den­cies in Poland or Czecho­slo­va­kia. Heise lat­er recalled the film school as a “schiz­o­phrenic” place:

The rec­to­ry was in Stalin’s house, in the build­ing where he lived dur­ing the Pots­dam con­fer­ence […]. I remem­ber the dom­i­nant feel­ing was sus­pi­cion, cou­pled with a calm that sim­ply ignored this sus­pi­cion, and an under­ly­ing fear. It was all schiz­o­phrenic and obvi­ous­ly not healthy. I latched onto the few for­eign stu­dents and moved around as if I were in ene­my ter­ri­to­ry. But I was obvi­ous­ly a native of this land, part of this. In any case, I was rather a lon­er. (“Thoughts” 223)

Today the Film Uni­ver­si­ty Babels­berg “Kon­rad Wolf,” suc­ces­sor to the for­mer state film school, con­tains a con­tin­u­al­ly grow­ing cat­a­logue of approx­i­mate­ly 4,000 films of dif­fer­ent gen­res and types from all six decades of the school’s his­to­ry (Brom­bach, Ebbrecht-Hart­mann, and Wahl 81). These include, for exam­ple, the ear­li­est stu­dent films pro­duced in 1956-57 by lat­er well-known DEFA direc­tors such as Jür­gen Böttch­er, Kurt Tet­zlaff, Her­mann Zschoche, and Ingrid Reschke. The errat­ic and unsys­tem­at­ic archive kept con­formist and ide­al­iz­ing doc­u­men­taries about East Ger­man soci­ety as well as films the admin­is­tra­tion crit­i­cized and even banned, pre­ma­ture exer­cis­es that ran­dom­ly depict­ed GDR life as well as films that offer the per­spec­tive of the school’s for­eign stu­dents. How­ev­er, there are also archival voids and gaps, mak­ing it dif­fi­cult to recon­struct the his­to­ry of films that were pro­duced but did not make their way into the archives (Lös­er). In the 1970s the school for­mal­ized the process of archiv­ing, but only after the trans­for­ma­tive tur­moil fol­low­ing 1989 did the archive become an inven­to­ry to be explored in oth­er con­texts. This is how Wozu denn über diese Leute einen Film? came to see the light of day.

After two short film exer­cis­es in the first years of his stud­ies, Heise com­plet­ed a doc­u­men­tary about two broth­ers in East Berlin’s inner-city Pren­zlauer Berg neigh­bour­hood who stark­ly devi­ate from accept­able role mod­els of social­ist youth. Sur­viv­ing as small-time crim­i­nals, Bernd and his broth­er Nor­bert lack any prospects for mean­ing­ful employ­ment yet pos­sess a vivid sense of self-con­fi­dence (Öhn­er 57-58). Heise depicts the two pro­tag­o­nists as free spir­its and sit­u­ates them as antipodes to the dom­i­nant con­cept of the social­ist hero. In con­trast to tra­di­tion­al GDR doc­u­men­taries focus­ing on thought­ful and social­ly respon­si­ble work­ing-class heroes, this film draws atten­tion to unem­ployed crim­i­nals. While the clas­si­cal social­ist hero incor­po­rates ideals such as col­lec­tiv­i­ty and sol­i­dar­i­ty, Heise’s pro­tag­o­nists are intro­duced as defi­ant indi­vid­u­al­ists with a strong sense of self. Cer­tain­ly, oth­er GDR film­mak­ers such as Jür­gen Böttch­er had already under­mined and trans­formed the con­cept of the social­ist hero. Although Böttch­er often fea­tured rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the work­ing class, the patient, obser­va­tion­al mode of his films as well as the speak­ing sub­ject in front of the cam­era com­mu­ni­cate less vis­i­ble and even hid­den dimen­sions of social real­i­ty. Indeed, Heise’s film echoes Böttcher’s own stu­dent film from twen­ty years ear­li­er, Notwendi­ge Lehr­jahre (Nec­es­sary Years of Appren­tice­ship, 1960), which also por­trayed crim­i­nal youth but in this case liv­ing in a GDR refor­ma­to­ry. While Böttch­er struc­tures his film around the con­tra­dic­tion between a free­dom-seek­ing, search­ing cam­era and a con­formist voice over, Heise explores through his deviant and non-con­formist pro­tag­o­nists the mar­gins of GDR soci­ety with its ambi­gu­i­ties and inner contradictions.

When Heise test-screened his doc­u­men­tary about the broth­ers before a com­mit­tee of film school teach­ers and admin­is­tra­tors, they were shocked: “Why should one make a film about these peo­ple?” one of the teach­ers alleged­ly com­ment­ed (Keuschnigg and Heise). This state­ment became the film’s title: Wozu denn über diese Leute einen Film? The com­mit­tee request­ed that he rework the film. Although he changed some parts for the sec­ond screen­ing, it was sub­se­quent­ly banned. As a result, fol­low­ing two more can­celled projects, one of which was Anka und…, Heise decid­ed to leave the school.[5] “The rea­son it was banned,” recalls Heise, “was the casu­al way the film por­trayed those young men liv­ing their lives untouched by ide­ol­o­gy, includ­ing tak­ing their careers as pet­ty crim­i­nals for grant­ed, mean­ing the film’s author accept­ed their exis­tence, as is, and sim­ply want­ed to explore it” (“Arche­ol­o­gy” 9). This inter­est in explo­ration turned Wozu denn über diese Leute einen Film? into an arche­o­log­i­cal project. It con­tained images and sounds that could bear wit­ness for the future, a way of life that was not shown in the offi­cial East Ger­man media. Although nev­er screened pub­licly, it did land in the school’s archival stor­age. Locked there, it sur­vived the GDR and pre­served the voic­es and faces that were encap­su­lat­ed in the mate­r­i­al. Now, in hind­sight, it offers the view­er sig­nif­i­cant hints about how to read the mate­r­i­al. Some scenes address, for instance, the con­cept of archives for the future by refer­ring to the for­mu­la­ic pathos of East Germany’s ide­ol­o­gy: “How do you imag­ine the future?” Heise asks his young pro­tag­o­nists in one of the film’s most strik­ing scenes. Bernd answers that he can­not. The GDR’s ide­o­log­i­cal­ly overde­ter­mined con­cept of the future can­not be applied to their world. Their small apart­ment is both a safe haven and a prison, a real­i­ty exclud­ed from the state’s offi­cial self-image. Here, at the mar­gins of soci­ety, the future only exists as an emp­ty phrase pro­claimed by social­ist rhetoric, not unlike the desire for a peace­ful world, Norbert’s girl­friend Regina’s response to Heise’s ques­tion. Bernd imme­di­ate­ly coun­ters by ask­ing, equal­ly rhetor­i­cal­ly: “Do you real­ly believe there will be anoth­er war? Then you can fight.” The film pre­serves com­mu­nica­tive acts, state­ments, and atti­tudes absent from the offi­cial media. At the same time it for­mu­lates ele­ments of a ran­dom “arche­ol­o­gy of real exis­tence,” as Heise once described his approach in the sub­ti­tle of a pub­li­ca­tion about his works (Spuren).

Beyond obser­va­tion and con­ver­sa­tion, the audi­ence also encoun­ters visu­al sources such as pho­tographs, which become “an essen­tial part of Heise’s ‘archae­o­log­i­cal’ work” (Estra­da 46). Most­ly tak­en from a fam­i­ly album, the pho­tographs reveal the unful­filled long­ing for nos­tal­gi­cal­ly trans­fig­ured “bet­ter times,” but also trig­ger a mutu­al act of com­mu­ni­ca­tion with­in the frag­ment­ed fam­i­ly. In con­trast, anoth­er sequence uses audio­vi­su­al sources in depict­ing the silent gath­er­ing of the broth­ers and Regi­na in front of a tele­vi­sion. [Clip 2] The broad­cast images sit­u­ate the moment through the West Ger­man live news footage, which relay the 1979 Islam­ic rev­o­lu­tion in Iran and mass demon­stra­tions in Cairo. At first sight, this scene refers to the com­mon­ly known but tabooed fact that many GDR cit­i­zens had more inter­est in watch­ing West Ger­man broad­casts than their own media. This par­tic­u­lar news footage also intro­duces not only the trope of mass protest and rev­o­lu­tion but also inter­na­tion­al sol­i­dar­i­ty, all exam­ples of the GDR’s pathos for­mu­lae. More to the point, how­ev­er, the tele­vi­sion images self-reflex­ive­ly com­ment on the film itself. For a brief moment Nor­bert switch­es to a TV report about arche­ol­o­gists, which sug­gests the film’s own approach, an arche­o­log­i­cal exca­va­tion of social exis­tence. Fur­ther­more, the sequence’s final images from an adven­ture film or a fairy tale movie show a fly­ing horse falling to pieces, a visu­al metaphor for the frag­men­ta­tion of life as depict­ed in the film as well as for the frag­men­tary char­ac­ter of the archives for the future. [Fig. 2] Wozu denn über diese Leute einen Film? became a post­poned doc­u­ment of every­day exis­tence that revealed its traces only after the fall of the Wall.

Clip 2: Sequence with tele­vi­sion footage from Wozu denn über diese Leute einen Film? (1980). Dir. Thomas Heise, DVD Edi­tion Film­mu­se­um 56, 2011.

Hidden Traces and Unrealized Possibilities

Many of the stu­dent films pro­duced at the Babels­berg film school, even the more con­formist exam­ples pre­served in the school’s archive, can be con­cep­tu­al­ized as “lost caus­es” in the GDR’s visu­al mem­o­ry. Pro­duced in a pro­tect­ed, semi-offi­cial envi­ron­ment, they rarely real­ized their poten­tial because they were screened only for a lim­it­ed pub­lic or not at all. This char­ac­ter­izes their com­plex tem­po­ral char­ac­ter: a mode of exis­tence I call archival delay. Wozu denn über diese Leute einen Film? not only doc­u­ments and pre­serves social real­i­ty more or less ran­dom­ly, but it also helps us see the invis­i­ble by means of the vis­i­ble. Like Mate­r­i­al and Eisen­zeit, this film serves as a his­to­ri­o­graph­i­cal agent. Again, Kracauer’s com­ment on the “reveal­ing pow­er” of pho­to­graph­ic film helps us read these films in hind­sight as a cin­e­mat­ic trace (The­o­ry of Film 16). Estab­lish­ing the par­al­lel between his­to­ri­og­ra­phy and the pho­to­graph­ic medi­um, he states: “His­to­ry resem­bles pho­tog­ra­phy in that it is, among oth­er things, a means of alien­ation” (His­to­ry 5). If the cam­era gives access to the mar­gins of social real­i­ty, it also main­tains a posi­tion of obser­va­tion, which is an impor­tant pre­con­di­tion for a poten­tial­ly reflex­ive approach. This inter­play of close­ness and dis­tance, which is con­sti­tu­tive for both pho­tog­ra­phy and film, points to an “inter­me­di­ary area” (Kra­cauer 16), which his­to­ri­og­ra­phy shares with the pho­to­graph­ic. Kra­cauer then links this approach to the inter­est of the explor­er: “Owing to the camera’s reveal­ing pow­er, he [the pho­tog­ra­ph­er] has also traits of an explor­er who, filled with curios­i­ty, roams yet uncon­quered spaces” (55). This too resem­bles the traits of an arche­ol­o­gist in Heise’s mold, bring­ing togeth­er cin­e­ma, his­to­ri­og­ra­phy, and archeology.

Hav­ing quit the film school and faced with a dead end, Heise start­ed to col­lect sound, footage, and oth­er visu­al mate­r­i­al that he deposit­ed in his pri­vate col­lec­tion or even in offi­cial archives—the only way to con­ceal his own images and thoughts in the “enemy’s insti­tu­tions” (Stöhr 112). In the mid-1970s the GDR State Film Archive estab­lished the Staatliche Film­doku­men­ta­tion (State Film Doc­u­men­ta­tion) to archive raw film footage of every­day life not includ­ed in offi­cial­ly pro­duced doc­u­men­taries (Barn­ert 30). The idea behind this project was that in future times such raw footage would be use­ful for films that would ret­ro­spec­tive­ly doc­u­ment GDR progress over the course of time. In oth­er words, its goal was to pre­serve audio­vi­su­al doc­u­ments of events and liv­ing con­di­tions that were not expe­di­ent for the present self-depic­tion of the state but could be used to illus­trate the past in future films. As a result, the Staatliche Film­doku­men­ta­tion col­lect­ed footage of inad­e­quate hous­ing con­di­tions, pover­ty, and even the Berlin Wall, which would nev­er have been shown in offi­cial doc­u­men­taries. It did not exist to doc­u­ment taboo aspects of life in the GDR, but—corresponding to the con­cept of social­ist realism—to record and archive typ­i­cal aspects of every­day life (Barn­ert 31). For Heise this insti­tu­tion came clos­est to what he saw as a counter-archive with­in an offi­cial archive because it sup­port­ed the col­lec­tion of footage “for an unknown, far-off future” (“Arche­ol­o­gy” 12). Hence, in 1984 and 1985 Heise was able to make two films for the State Film Archive, one about state bureau­cra­cy and the oth­er about the East Ger­man “people’s police.” Both projects were dri­ven by his gen­er­al inter­est in inves­ti­gat­ing how the state com­mu­ni­cates with its cit­i­zens, but instead of cin­e­mat­ic doc­u­ments of every­day life, which the Staatliche Film­doku­men­ta­tion intend­ed to col­lect, he pro­duced traces. More­over, embed­ded in the footage were nuanced instruc­tions about how to read the visu­al doc­u­men­ta­tion. Hence, these “pre­lim­i­nary films” were active­ly fab­ri­cat­ed rem­nants to be pre­served, which could be con­strued as a unique form of reversed arche­ol­o­gy (Öhn­er 59).

For Das Haus Heise col­lect­ed footage togeth­er with his cam­era­man Peter Badel in an admin­is­tra­tive build­ing near East Berlin’s gov­ern­men­tal cen­ter at Alexan­der­platz. [Fig. 3] The film observes dif­fer­ent depart­ments of a dis­trict admin­is­tra­tion. It doc­u­ments requests for state sup­port, hous­ing prob­lems, and a civ­il mar­riage. Struc­tured by week­days, the pre­lim­i­nary edit­ing empha­sizes typ­i­cal pro­ce­dures with­in the admin­is­tra­tive process, fol­low­ing the demands of the Staatliche Film­doku­men­ta­tion. Yet the film also makes vis­i­ble struc­tures of pow­er and the automa­tion of the bureau­crat­ic process. To this end its dis­tinc­tive styl­is­tic devices are long shots and rep­e­ti­tion. Both empha­size the exhaust­ing admin­is­tra­tive rou­tine and its machine-like oper­a­tions. These cin­e­mat­ic devices par­al­lel tech­niques of obser­va­tion­al doc­u­men­taries and the spe­cif­ic style of ephemer­al films. Heise and Badel repeat­ed­ly wit­ness the encoun­ters of pub­lic ser­vants with ordi­nary peo­ple and pre­serve on film the same phras­es and unsat­is­fy­ing answers about the crit­i­cal hous­ing sit­u­a­tion. What counts as typ­i­cal is the rep­e­ti­tion of the same, reveal­ing the bureaucracy’s struc­tur­al dys­func­tion while artic­u­lat­ing shat­tered dreams and dis­en­chant­ed hopes.

Although the mis­sion of the Staatliche Film­doku­men­ta­tion allowed only for raw film footage that could be used in the future for ret­ro­spec­tive com­pi­la­tion films, Heise suc­ceed­ed in pro­duc­ing mean­ing­ful films with com­ment­ing inter­ti­tles and care­ful­ly ordered mon­tage. In con­trast to the expect­ed approach, he not only doc­u­ment­ed what he wit­nessed as GDR bureau­cra­cy, but he also intro­duced a lev­el of self-reflec­tion or irony by empha­siz­ing dis­crete sen­tences or phras­es, which served as print­ed head­lines for the film’s chrono­log­i­cal chap­ters. [Fig. 4] This ambigu­ous inter­play of cap­tions, voic­es, and images fur­ther­more fore­grounds the rela­tion­ship between word and image. These com­po­si­tion­al techniques—contrast, cap­tions, repetition—construct a com­mu­nica­tive rela­tion­ship with the view­er that makes pos­si­ble its leg­i­bil­i­ty in hind­sight. This pre­lim­i­nary edit­ing, which cre­at­ed a sense of ambi­gu­i­ty, trans­forms the archival footage into active images in Bredekamp’s sense, even as the films van­ished into the archive, wait­ing for their time to arrive: “The workprint and the neg­a­tive were expert­ly and safe­ly ware­housed and sur­vived the frost, safe in the ice” (Heise, “Arche­ol­o­gy” 12). Only after the end of the GDR did Heise man­age to retrieve and pub­licly screen them on tele­vi­sion and in cin­e­mas; only then could those films, orig­i­nal­ly made for “archival pur­pos­es,” reveal their arche­o­log­i­cal poten­tial (Heise, “Arbeit” 264).


The explo­ration of Thomas Heise’s unfin­ished cin­e­mat­ic mate­r­i­al from the GDR leads to the con­cept of archives for the future as a strat­e­gy in-the-mak­ing that orig­i­nat­ed in his expe­ri­ences as a stu­dent at the Babels­berg film school. Both the school’s film archive and the film col­lec­tion of the Staatliche Film­doku­men­ta­tion com­prised alter­na­tive spaces where footage sur­vived while wait­ing for an unknown future when it could reveal traces pre­served from GDR social real­i­ty. Although insti­tu­tion­al­ized and part of the state-con­trolled sys­tem, these col­lec­tions were char­ac­ter­ized by their ephemer­al sta­tus. With­in a sys­tem of polit­i­cal con­trol and inclu­sion, their ambi­gu­i­ty lent them the sta­tus of a par­tial­ly extrater­ri­to­r­i­al space in Derrida’s sense of the archive (11). Heise was able to appro­pri­ate this space and cre­ate his own archives for the future as a place of con­sign­ment that would reveal its sub­stance only in a state of delay. For this rea­son, my exam­i­na­tion does not treat these ephemer­al cin­e­mat­ic rem­nants as his­tor­i­cal sources but rather as traces that need to be under­stood in a cer­tain con­text, appro­pri­at­ed, arranged, and re-read.[6]

Such visu­al exploration—in Heise’s words, a form of archeology—discovers the agency incor­po­rat­ed in the pre­served images. Films from the archives of the future are dri­ven by what Hal Fos­ter has described as “an archival impulse.” Such works “make his­tor­i­cal infor­ma­tion, often lost or dis­placed, phys­i­cal­ly present, [are] frag­men­tary rather than fun­gi­ble,” and are less con­cerned “with absolute ori­gins than with obscure traces […] or incom­plete projects—in art and in his­to­ry alike—that might offer points of depar­ture again” (Fos­ter 3-5). Heise’s archiv­ing films gen­er­at­ed tech­niques of visu­al arche­ol­o­gy, while their frag­men­tary char­ac­ter evoked a future archive in-becom­ing, an effect he described as the unique char­ac­ter of Mate­r­i­al, which he argues:

[…] does not pro­vide a fin­ished prod­uct. And it stands in open con­tra­dic­tion to the gen­er­al­ly remem­bered images on pub­lic tele­vi­sion of the fall of the Wall, which was called “The Change” [Wende] in Ger­man, and the annex­a­tion of East Ger­many by West Ger­many that was its goal. The film depends on the real­i­ty of pos­si­bil­i­ty, such as it could be found in the utopi­an pic­tures from that era. It is about the audi­ence and the stage, about up and down, the first words spo­ken after a long silence, and a silence that returns after that brief moment of free­dom. (“Arche­ol­o­gy” 15)

His films pre­serve traces simul­ta­ne­ous­ly of a van­ished state and of the rapid return of anoth­er pre­car­i­ous future. As a last, unre­al­ized attempt to con­tin­ue such an archive for the future, he pro­posed to doc­u­ment a meet­ing of DEFA film­mak­ers and per­son­nel dur­ing which they could talk about con­cealed accu­sa­tions, sus­pi­cions, hopes, and dreams. In Heise’s opin­ion such visu­al doc­u­men­ta­tion would con­sti­tute an impor­tant arche­o­log­i­cal arti­fact, essen­tial for writ­ing, in the future, the his­to­ry of East Ger­man cin­e­ma (Dell and Rothöh­ler 9). How­ev­er, such a meet­ing nev­er took place and no cin­e­mat­ic records from such a dis­cus­sion were pre­served. Yet in his post­poned work as a GDR film­mak­er Heise col­lect­ed frag­ments and rem­nants and demon­strat­ed how to use them as a start­ing point for visu­al arche­ol­o­gy, under­stand­ing film as a medi­a­tor between the con­tin­gent present and an unde­fined future. In Heise’s words, “Arche­ol­o­gy is about dig­ging. It’s like the work of moles, who live under­ground. A mole is vir­tu­al­ly blind, but it has a nose and a feel for find­ing what it needs. And it has the patience to col­lect what it finds. It col­lects pro­vi­sions to last through the win­ter” (“Arche­ol­o­gy” 9). By reveal­ing traces instead of sub­or­di­nat­ing his footage to an arti­fi­cial image of the past, his films enable the pre­served images to active­ly dis­close their present con­tin­gency to a future audi­ence: to us, in a sub­se­quent present.

Works Cited

Ander­son, Steve F. Tech­nolo­gies of His­to­ry: Visu­al Media and the Eccen­tric­i­ty of the Past. Dart­mouth Col­lege P, 2011.

Barn­ert, Anne. “Staatliche Film­doku­men­ta­tion: Geschichte und Idee ein­er Film­pro­duk­tion für die Zukun­ft.“ Filme für die Zukun­ft: Die Staatliche Film­doku­men­ta­tion am Fil­marchiv der DDR, edit­ed by Anne Barn­ert, Neo­fe­lis, 2015, pp. 29-157.

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Brom­bach, Ilka, Tobias Ebbrecht-Hart­mann, and Chris Wahl. “‘Walls Have Nev­er Held Us Back:’ 60 Years of Stu­dent Films at the Film Uni­ver­si­ty Babels­berg Kon­rad Wolf.” Cahi­er Louis-Lumière, no. 9, 2015, pp. 78-85. www​.ens​-louis​-lumiere​.fr/​f​i​l​e​a​d​m​i​n​/​p​d​f​/​C​a​h​i​e​r​/​9​b​/​P​D​F​-​i​n​t​e​r​a​c​t​i​f​-​F​R​_​E​N​G​.​pdf

Dell, Matthias, and Simon Rothöh­ler. “Vor­wort.” Über Thomas Heise, edit­ed by Matthias Dell and Simon Rothöh­ler, Vor­w­erk 8, 2014, pp. 9-13.

Der­ri­da, Jacques. Archive Fever: A Freudi­an Impres­sion. Trans­lat­ed by Eric Prenowitz, U of Chica­go P, 1998.

Estra­da, Javier H. “Why Peo­ple Like Us?” Thomas Heise. Frag­men­tos de Busque­da / Frag­ments of Seek­ing, edit­ed by Olaf Möller, Gob­ier­no De Navar­ra, 2013, pp. 44-65.

Fos­ter, Hal. “An Archival Impulse.” Octo­ber, no. 110, 2004, pp. 3–22.

Forster, Ralf. “Gren­zen aus­loten, Freiräume schaf­fen: Kri­tis­che Ten­den­zen im DDR-Ama­teur­film.” Protest – Film – Bewe­gung, edit­ed by Kay Hoff­mann and Eri­ka Wot­trich, Text und Kri­tik, 2015, pp. 133-47.

Heise, Thomas. “‘Arbeit in Fein­des­land:’ Inter­view.” Filme für die Zukun­ft. Die Staatliche Film­doku­men­ta­tion am Fil­marchiv der DDR, edit­ed by Anne Barn­ert,  Neo­fe­lis, 2015, pp. 255-78.

---. “Arche­ol­o­gy is about Dig­ging.” DVD Thomas Heise Mate­r­i­al – Book­let. Edi­tion Film­mu­se­um, Goethe-Insti­tut, and Doku­men­tarfilmini­tia­tive NW, 2011, pp. 9-15.

---. Spuren: Eine Arche­olo­gie der realen Exis­tenz. Vor­w­erk 8, 2010.

---. “Thoughts in Form of an Inter­view.” Fes­ti­val dei Popoli – Cat­a­logue, edit­ed by Vit­to­rio Hervese, Fes­ti­val dei Popoli, 2009, pp. 222-29. doc​play​er​.it/​4​4​1​7​7​4​5​-​F​e​s​t​i​v​a​l​-​d​e​i​-​p​o​p​o​l​i​-​f​e​s​t​i​v​a​l​-​i​n​t​e​r​n​a​z​i​o​n​a​l​e​-​d​e​l​-​f​i​l​m​-​d​o​c​u​m​e​n​t​a​r​i​o​.​h​tml

Keuschnigg, Markus, and Thomas Heise. “Thomas Heise: ‘Ich gehörte in der DDR nicht zur Film­fam­i­lie’.” Die Presse. Novem­ber 23, 2014. diepresse​.com/​h​o​m​e​/​k​u​l​t​u​r​/​f​i​l​m​/​4​6​0​2​6​2​4​/​T​h​o​m​a​s​-​H​e​i​s​e​_​I​c​h​-​g​e​h​o​e​r​t​e​-​i​n​-​d​e​r​-​D​D​R​-​n​i​c​h​t​-​z​u​r​-​F​i​l​m​f​a​m​i​lie

Kout­sourakis, Ange­los. “Uti­liz­ing the ‘Ide­o­log­i­cal Antiq­ui­ty’: Rethink­ing Brecht and Film The­o­ry.” Monat­shefte, vol. 107, no. 2, 2015, pp. 242-69.

Kra­cauer, Siegfried. His­to­ry: The Last Things Before the Last. Markus Wiener Pub­li­ca­tions, 2014.

---. The­o­ry of Film: The Redemp­tion of Phys­i­cal Real­i­ty. Prince­ton UP, 1997.

Lin­den­berg­er, Thomas. “Every­day His­to­ry: New Approach­es to the His­to­ry of the Post-War Ger­manys.” The Divid­ed Past: Rewrit­ing Post-War Ger­man His­to­ry, edit­ed by Christoph Kless­mann, Berg, 2001, pp. 43-67.

Lös­er, Claus. “Im Dorn­röschen­schloss: Doku­men­tarfilme an der Babels­berg­er Filmhochschule.” Schwarzweiß und in Farbe: DEFA Doku­men­tarfilme, 1946-1992, edit­ed by Gün­ter Jor­dan and Ralf Schenk, Film­mu­se­um Potsdam/Jovis, 1996, pp. 343-55.

---. Strate­gien der Ver­weigerung: Unter­suchun­gen zum poli­tisch-ästhetis­chen Ges­tus unangepasster filmis­ch­er Artiku­la­tio­nen in der Spät­phase der DDR. DEFA-Stiftung, 2011.

Lös­er, Claus, and Karin Fritzsche, edi­tors. Gegen­bilder: Filmis­che Sub­ver­sion in der DDR 1976-1989 – Texte, Bilder, Dat­en. Janus Press, 1996.

Lüdtke, Alf. “Kein Entkom­men? Bilder-Codes und eigensin­niges Fotografieren: Eine Nach­lese.” Die DDR im Bild. Zum Gebrauch der Fotografie im anderen deutschen Staat, edit­ed by Karin Hartewig and Alf Lüdtke, Wall­stein, 2004, pp. 227-36.

Mitchell, W.J.T. What Do Pic­tures Want?: The Lives and Loves of Images. Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go Press, 2005.

Müller, Hein­er. “Ver­ab­schiedung des Lehrstücks” [1977]. Werke, vol. 8, edit­ed by Frank Hörnigk, Suhrkamp, 2005, p. 187.

Öhn­er, Vrääth. “Gedächt­nis der Lebensweisen: Zu Eisen­zeit und Vater­land von Thomas Heise.” DDR Erin­nern Vergessen. Das visuelle Gedächt­nis des Doku­men­tarfilms, edit­ed by Tobias Ebbrecht, Hilde Hoff­mann, and Jörg Schweinitz, Schüren, 2008, pp. 56-70.

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Rothöh­ler, Simon. Ama­teur der Welt­geschichte: His­to­ri­ographis­che Prak­tiken im Kino der Gegen­wart. Diaphanes, 2011.

Sabrow, Mar­tin. “Zukun­ftspathos als Legit­i­ma­tion­sres­source: Zu Charak­ter und Wan­del des Fortschrittspar­a­dig­mas in der DDR.” Auf­bruch in die Zukun­ft: Die 1960er Jahre zwis­chen Pla­nungse­uphorie und kul­turellem Wan­del – DDR, CSSR und Bun­desre­pub­lik Deutsch­land im inter­na­tionalen Ver­gle­ich, edit­ed by Heinz-Ger­hard Haupt, Jörg Requate, and Maria Köh­ler-Baur, Vel­brück, 2004, pp. 165-84.

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Stöhr, Markus. “Deutsch­land: Thomas Heise.” Poet­en, Chro­nis­ten, Rebellen. Inter­na­tionale Doku­men­tarfilmemacherIn­nen im Porträt, edit­ed by Ver­e­na Teissl and Volk­er Kull, Schüren, 2006, pp. 108-17.

Image and Clip Notes

Title Image: Rem­nants of post­poned futures from Mate­r­i­al; still from Mate­r­i­al. Dir. Thomas Heise, Ger­many 2009. DVD Edi­tion Film­mu­se­um 56, 2011.

Clip 1: Sequence depict­ing the protest ral­ly on Novem­ber 4, 1989, from Mate­r­i­al (2009). Dir. Thomas Heise, DVD Edi­tion Film­mu­se­um 56, 2011.

Fig­ure 1: Wall mur­al from open­ing sequence of Eisen­zeit (1991). Dir. Thomas Heise, VHS, Unidoc, 1993.

Clip 2: Sequence with tele­vi­sion footage from Wozu denn über diese Leute einen Film? (1980). Dir. Thomas Heise, DVD Edi­tion Film­mu­se­um 56, 2011.

Fig­ure 2: TV-still from Wozu denn über diese Leute einen Film? (1980). Dir. Thomas Heise, DVD Edi­tion Film­mu­se­um 56, 2011.

Fig­ure 3: The admin­is­tra­tive build­ing at Alexan­der­platz from Das Haus 1984. Dir. Thomas Heise, DVD Edi­tion Film­mu­se­um 56, 2011.

Fig­ure 4: Inter-title from Das Haus 1984. Dir. Thomas Heise, DVD Edi­tion Film­mu­se­um 56, 2011.


[1] There are addi­tion­al archives that pre­served semi-offi­cial and some­times even sub­ver­sive films. Among these col­lec­tions are films made in ama­teur film cir­cles and in semi-pro­fes­sion­al stu­dios relat­ed to com­pa­nies and fac­to­ries as well as works pro­duced by under­ground film­mak­ers. See Forster; Lös­er (Strate­gien der Ver­weigerung); Lös­er and Fritzsche.

[2] In this con­text see also Mitchell’s obser­va­tion that we often “talk and act as if pic­tures had feel­ing, will, con­scious­ness, agency and desire” (31).

[3] The script of Mate­r­i­al and addi­tion­al doc­u­ments are pub­lished in Heise (Spuren).

[4] The let­ter can be found among a col­lec­tion of files from the school’s film pro­duc­tion depart­ment, which are today stored in the archive of the Pots­dam Film Museum.

[5] Heise (Spuren) includes addi­tion­al doc­u­ments about Heise’s ear­ly film projects dur­ing his stud­ies at the Babels­berg film school as well as files the Stasi col­lect­ed about Heise with the help of sev­er­al unof­fi­cial informers—fellow stu­dents and teach­ers alike.

[6] Heise’s own col­lec­tion of texts and doc­u­ments empha­sizes this char­ac­ter of archival mate­r­i­al by choos­ing the title “Spuren” (traces) for the pre­sen­ta­tion of mate­r­i­al, left­overs, and writ­ten rem­nants (Spuren).

This arti­cle is licensed under a  Cre­ative Com­mons 4.0 Inter­na­tion­al License although cer­tain works ref­er­enced here­in may be sep­a­rate­ly licensed, or the author has exer­cised their right to fair deal­ing under the Cana­di­an Copy­right Act.