Self-indulgent family portraits are to documentaries what narcissistic memoirs are to literature but Gaston Solnicki’s “Papirosen”—which has been making the festival round for the last year and shows twice this week, January 21 and 22, as part of the New York Jewish Film Festival, at the Walter Reade—is not just terrific filmmaking but a remarkably self-effacing piece of work.
Combining old home movies with a decade’s worth of observational filmmaking, oral history, and a formally brilliant sound design, Solnicki is an invisible, obsessive spectator-interviewer pondering the weight of history, specifically the Holocaust, on four generations of Polish-Argentine Jews. There is no shortage of melodrama but Solnicki consistently skirts it. The revelations are almost always off-handed; the title refers directly to a sentimental Yiddish song about a Jewish war orphan, reduced to selling individual cigarettes on the street, but its literal meaning (“papers”) suggests both the filmmaker’s father’s attempt to give his identity a legal basis as well as the flimsy ephemera of the material Solnicki uses to create. Call his method the re-collection of memories.
“Papirosen” is simultaneously intimate and oblique, with a challenging back and forth structure that ranges over seven decades and several continents—in less than 70 minutes—with Solnicki’s parents and sister continually aging, de-aging, and re-aging before our eyes. Essentially, the movie is a vortex in which displacement is the natural state of affairs.