Florence, 1st- 7th November 2009

International documentary film festival

Workshop with Thomas Heise


Thomas Heise is a German filmmaker who has, with great care and determination, documented the passing of Germany under the RDT to the collapse of the wall to the subsequent reunification. Born in 1955, the director was the victim of strict censure by official film boards for many years. Only in recent years has it been possible to see his early films and adapt them to other formats after the original negatives were destroyed. His most recent work, the multiple-award winning “Material” (first prize at FID Marseille 2009) is an extraordinary film that has attracted the attention of the biggest international festivals and those attached to them.

With a filmography that combines political analysis, autobiography, sociological studies, experimentation and environmental studies, Heise, a disciple of the dramaturge Heiner Muller, deals with a junction of crucial importance to re-introduce a cinema that speaks in the first person while projecting outward, tackling a present that is contradictory and complex. For these reasons the Festival dei Popoli, on the occasion of its 50th anniversary, will dedicate a retrospective to him. Thomas Heise will also head a SIXTEEN HOUR WORKSHOP that will take place over two days (SATURDAY and SUNDAY NOVEMBER 7-8), during which the director will discuss cinematographic and political aspects of his work. It will be a unique opportunity to examine consequential filmmaking that poses a radical and passionate challenge to contemporary documentaries.

Enrollment for the workshop is limited. The total cost is 150 Euros. Students enrolled will have passes valid for the duration of the festival, and will receive a free copy of the festival catalogue. To enroll, send an enrollment request and your resume by October 1, 2009 to: festivaldeipopoli@festivaldeipopoli.191.it.

DIRECTOR’S NOTES - by Thomas Heise
Time’s limited, like space. Since I was born in 1955 East Berlin, capital city of those born in the German Democratic Republic, I belong to a generation that grew up after the June 17, 1953 uprising that survived Soviet tanks and after the Wall construction, started in August 1961. It was an only temporarily, half-consolidated GDR.

The beginning of my childhood’s end was not marked by our usual and beloved Jugendweihe, the civil and atheistic version of Confirmation, but by Warszawa Pact troops marching into the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic and putting an end to the Spring of Prague in August 1968.

I would hear TV speakers expose the names of many friends and acquaintances, some of them just a few years older than me, as enemies of the country.

I have been shaped by this German Democratic Republic, and by this Cold War. I am still because, even later on, I have strongly disagreed with my country, because I would not always keep my mouth shut.

Dream, the Paris barricades.

“Can you bury what was in the past? No, I can’t”.
Heiner Müller, from “Der Lohndrücker”, GDR 1956

“Isn’t that nice that all of this belongs again to us now?”
A remark made by a middle-aged lady to her husband overheard in Berlin on the Pariser Platz in front of the Brandenburg Gate.

“All of you are more similar to the Russians. Also because of your relationship with alcohol. I am getting ever nearer the West, instead”. That’s what the Hamburger documentary film-maker Klaus Wildenhahn, former editor at the Norddeutsche Rundfunk, told me after he had seen a film by me, East-Berliner documentary film-maker in 2003. The film he was discussing was Vaterland and dealt with Germany, and time.

It is interesting what is lasting. Bombs, shot throughout time. A piece of news. From a life, for example. Archaeology of real existence. That, one day, in a new format, can become a reminder of the species. News from existences from once upon a time. Including how you used to think. Swimming against the tide. To question the big picture, and power relations. Which, by the way, is fun. A dialogue between the present and being present and the future. We will discuss about this.

That is, about film, about materials, and patience. Always working on the same object, always beginning all over again.


Born in 1955 in East Berlin, Thomas Heise is one of the most important German documentarians living today. His career is closely tied to his life story; he began as a typographer (“under the DDR being a typographer was equivalent to choosing social failure,” said Heise in a conversation with Eria Richter) and later worked as an assistant director in 1975. After graduating from the HFF/B (the Academy of Film and Television at Potsdam-Babelsberg) in 1983, he made his first film, “Wozu denn über diese Leute einen Film,” a documentary made entirely with materials found on the black market. Since 1983, Heise has worked as a writer and director for theatre, radio and documentary film. Under the DDR, his films were blocked, destroyed or confiscated because – so said the language of the day – they contained “operative meanings” not in line with the principles of the regime. In those years, besides producing films like “Eisenzeit” and “Vaterland,” he also began an important collaboration with celebrated dramaturge Heiner Muller. Later he continued his studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin and directed numerous productions. Since the ‘90s, Heise’s work has attracted the attention of national and international critics, particularly his latest, “Material,” which was received with great interest and applause.

The early films of Thomas Heise are principally concerned with describing the social dynamics and bureaucratic apparatus of the DDR. Since the end of the ‘80s he has shifted his attention to the changes to individuals, families and communities involved in the process of German reunification. In this sense the references, interpreted as phenomena, include: privatization, industrial reorganization, unemployment, the rise of right-wing radicalism, etc. Heise’s documentaries are characterized by a careful, insistent attention to objects, rather than ideas or principles. Just so, Heise establishes a modus operandi based on the relationship of object-subject to his films, trying to avoid, on the one hand, introspective forms and, on the other, the risk of over interpretation. In his films Heise places himself centrally, at the converging point of historical phenomena, while also at the margins of society, places to which the unrepresentative yet ever significant gravitate: the neo-Nazis of East Germany in “Stau,” the spy of “Barluschke,” rebellious adolescents in “Eisenzeit” or the small village in “Vaterland.” Subjects, places and objects that bring to light the social multitudes, political and historical, still hidden in the interstices of contemporary Germany.

Thomas Heise’s documentaries are still unknown to the Italian public. Almost all of the films that will be shown at the 50th edition of the Festival dei Popoli can be considered never before seen, just as they have never before been shown chronologically and thematically. The decision to hold a retrospective was made not only for stylistic reasons but also in the belief that the meaning of an author’s works (his poetics, some might say) can only be grasped by reconstructing his development and various articulations. This is particularly true of Thomas Heise, who works on the details and general scenery, who returns to previous pieces of film, who builds an archive of history and images that he continually re-shapes and re-uses, just as “Material,” his latest work, proves; the film was made by splicing sequences he shot over the course of his career.
Heise has the courage to work within history, not on it, so that his is an uninterrupted narration that involves us and makes us participants in it. The Festival retrospective will be organized chronologically, but it will also try to tackle some of the recurring themes in his works, taking advantage of the filmmaker’s presence. We believe documentary screenings are an interesting occasion to explore social, cultural and political issues of recent European history, in particular the history of that hinge point, Eastern Europe. Film screenings will be supplemented by discussions with the filmmaker and experts from diverse disciplines.
The Retrospective is organized in collaboration with GERMAN FILMS and GOETHE INSTITUT.

see all news