Dir. Arnon Goldfinger, Germany/Israel, 2012, 97minutes (IFC Films; Sundance Selects, at Sunshine Cinema in New York — opens October 19)
The Flat turns a confined space into a vast cinematic subject.
When Arnon Goldfinger’s Berlin-born grandmother died at 98, his family went to Gerta Tuchler’s apartment in Tel Aviv to sift through her property. What they found were the predictable mulch of clothes, letters and jewelry accumulated over more than half a century that tell micro-histories of a family and a time.
They also found something else. Goldfinger’s grandmother and her Zionist husband, Kurt, had traveled to Palestine in the early 1930’s with a Nazi official, Leopold von Mildenstein, who was in charge of promoting Jewish emigration to the Holy Land. In the years before the Nazis decided what their Final Solution would be, the Hitler government coined a commemorative medal promoting emigration with a design incorporating a swastika and a Star of David. Who knew besides a few historians of a bizarre moment that seems to cry out for its own Mel Brooks?
Goldfinger’s grandparents emigrated to Palestine, and the Nazi official who befriended them moved to the staff of Joseph Goebbels, and wrote for Der Angriff (The Attack), a Nazi newspaper known for its vitriolic militancy, even by Nazi standards. (Der Angriff published Mildenstein’s series of articles in 1934, A Nazi Travels to Palestine.) Members of the Tuchler’s family were deported and died in the camps. The friendship hadn’t helped much when friends in high places were needed most.
After the war, as camp survivors poured into Palestine and the new Israeli government hunted for Nazis, correspondence found in the apartment (and photographs) revealed that the Tuchlers and the Mildensteins renewed their friendship and spent vacations together in the Old Reich. Goldfinger, who is shocked, confronts his family with inconvenient truth after inconvenient truth. He travels to Germany to question Mildenstein’s family with troubling facts about the Nazi’s own past. (It turns out that Der Spiegel had gotten there first in 1966, years before, but those revelations never amounted to much.)
The Flat revives the story, which Goldfinger is encountering for the first time, of Jews who lost family in the Shoah but never abandoned their friendship with a Nazi propagandist. Unbelievable? All the more reason to follow Goldfinger on his improbable journey in The Flat. Nostalgia for a German past dies hard here, in a documentary that shows how a story that seems like another family album can reveal staggering surprises.
The Flat is not the stuff of Holocaust memorials that stress the enormity and the pure unambiguous evil of a regime that mandated mass murder – all of which are true and necessary testimonies. Yet the film has the complexity of a detective story that tests the filmmaker’s own morale, and Goldfinger’s painful exploration of family secrets reminds us of untold uncomfortable truths that history still needs to tell. You have to see The Flat multiple times just to take in all the details that Goldfinger unearths. It’s a prodigious work of research.
Here’s what I wrote about the film in Outtakes when it played at the Berlin Jewish Film Festival in May.