You never know what family secrets might be hidden in the attic. In the case of Israeli filmmaker Arnon Goldfinger, mementos left in his late, German-born grandmother’s Tel Aviv apartment turned out to be clues pointing a longstanding friendship with a Nazi baron.
“The Flat,” opening Friday in New York and Los Angeles after numerous festival appearances, is a first-person documentary and a mystery about a mystery. The first clue is a moldering clipping from an ancient German newspaper headlined, “A Nazi Travels to Palestine.” In the course deciphering this relic and its connection to his grandparents, Goldfinger discovers a good deal about the ambivalence of German Jews towards the land that drove them into exile or worse, the human capacity for mental compartmentalization, and a child’s complicity in “unknowing” a parent. The latter is true not only of the filmmaker’s own mother who, however willfully obtuse, dutifully travels with him to Germany to investigate the family past but even more painfully in the case of her generational cohort, the baron’s daughter.
Goldfinger’s best known documentary, “The Komediant” (2000) is a zesty saga of the Polish-born, Israeli-based Yiddish song-and-dance man Pesach’ke Burstein and his peripatetic touring clan — a movie packed with incident, personality, and family drama, not to mention historical pathos. “The Flat” has many of the same elements — along with a powerful sense of futility and loss. In the movie’s key scene, elderly mother and grown child, engage in a long search in a foreign land (and the pouring rain) for a family grave that seemingly no longer exists.