Discover This: Gegenwart

Copyright: Blinker Filmproduktion

When we buried my grandmother’s ashes two months ago, my four-year-old niece asked my sister how it was possible to fit grandma into a baking oven. The entire ceremony, though a sad farewell, opened my eyes to the absurdities that we face when it comes to death. Or rather, to how death seems to be the last great taboo in the society in which I grew up.

Thomas Heise’s new astonishing film, Gegenwart, is a documentary about a crematorium in the Rhineland. It is not a film about how a society deals with death, but rather a survey into its business and the everyday experiences of the people who work in it. It has no dialogue or commentary and, instead, observes through the eyes of the cameraman, Robert Nickolaus. Gegenwart enters an obscure world with eyes wide open – surprised and fascinated, eager to observe and eager to learn. Heise approaches his subject with the curiosity of a child and the focus of an adult.

Once you discover that what is occurring is a systematic burning of dead bodies to turn them into ashes, each of the many small details of the film acquire new meaning. It starts with the name of the area, Dachsenhausen (!) and a worker who climbs into the cold oven to adjust a fixture with mortar and stone. The camera eye lingers on the shaved head of a man at work. When we see that he is wearing a shirt by Thor Steinar, the film evokes Nazi Germany, old and new. Yet there is not a clear message here; in fact, there is no obvious message in this film, not even a statement. Instead Heise opens up a space for reflexion that you as the audience are asked to fill with your own ideas. It appeared to me that many of the old bodies, which the camera allows us to see shortly, must have lived through the Third Reich and are now gone forever. The past is always in the present, the present, die Gegenwart, must always remember the past.

This transition from present to past is portrayed as a business here, not as a metaphysical experience. We see a team of cleaners wipe the floors and clean the doors and there is something almost morbid about this scene because the dirt they collect contains some remains of the people that were burnt there. When another employee breaks the metal coffin handles in preparing for a cremation (because no metal objects must enter the oven), you start thinking that death and the entire funeral business consists of selling the symbolic, not the practical.

The longer you watch the routines of that crematorium, the more common this workplace becomes. The big taboo, death, becomes normalized throughout the film and the deep social and emotional fear towards dealing with it becomes negligible. Hands press a button and a coffin goes into the oven, while other hands press a button and coffee pours from the machine. One person breaks open the lid of the coffin and looks at the corpse, another hand opens the lid of the biscuit jar and reaches for the selection of cookies.
The film leads us to understand that death is yet another system we are part of. The images of tables and computer diagrams are proof of a system of efficient operations and well-planned processing. Everything has its place in the workflow and its product is our ashes.

One day, when my niece is old enough, I will show her this film and discuss it with her. I will tell her that grandma was not actually cremated in a baking oven. I will also try to tell her that death is inevitable and that some of us will turn to ashes if we wish. Gegenwart is a film that we should all see, because it is a curious, unsentimental, eye-opening and yet weirdly poetic look on something we don’t like to talk about.

Gegenwart, Germany 2012, 65 min. director: Thomas Heise, camera: Robert Nickolaus, languages: no dialogue (bits of German), distributor: Real Fiction

Berlin Screenings (all starting today): fsk, Krokodil, Acud

We give away 2 x 2 free tickets for Gegenwart for any of the above mentioned Berlin cinemas, just leave a comment with a valid e-mail address until tomorrow, Friday, March 22nd, 17:00.


also leave a comment
  1. Mats Svensson on


    Let’s hope for the best. The film looks interesting.

  2. jude on


    klingt interessant!

  3. Lourdes Arenas on


    Is important not to forget the past, in order of not repeat the same sad and terrible mistakes. Thanks for the information about the film and the free tickets.

  4. Susanne on


    The film sounds amazing. I’d love to see it.

  5. Sahel on


    first :)

  6. Vitan Vitanov on


    I’d love to see it!

  7. Maren on


    Sounds great – would love to win! Cheers!

  8. G on


    my grandma was also cremated a few months ago… would like to see this movie

  9. sophie on


    Sometimes it needs a film to see whats all around you.

  10. Mel on


    ein thema, das heutzutage leider unter den teppich gekehrt wird. früher oder später müssen wir uns ja alle dem tod stellen. schade, dass der film nur in so wenigen kinos startet….

  11. Duarte on


    I often feel like the remains of humans are overrated. The person is not there anymore. Those ashes are composed of something very very similar to the ashes of when you burn your dinner in the oven. It is all very symbolic, and I’m curious to see how this movie portrays this.

  12. Roosa on


    Sounds like an interesting movie!

  13. Roxana Hetrea on


    Finally somebody who dares to show this part of our lives!

  14. Niya on


    Would love to win ;)

  15. Markus Gerstgrasser on



  16. Claudia on


    Wow, very interesting movie. We always try to look away from death, but sometimes “knowing” is the best way to live with it and enjoy every single day.
    It would be a nice present winning these two tickets :)


  17. Spyros on


    I wanna

  18. Kajsa on


    For sure an interesting topic for a documentary.

  19. Eloise Coveny on


    Very poetic, the cinematography looks fantastic! I appreciate the concept, i would be very interested to see this.

  20. Mylène on


    Nice movie, which I d be happy to see! :-)

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