by Alan Pyke
It’s difficult enough to recount personal stories when you’ve got distance from them, room and time to process each emotional and factual piece and arrange them into a meaningful, engaging tale. Part of what makes The Flat such an impressive documentary is that director Arnon Goldfinger didn’t allow himself that distance. He was recording his attempts to make sense of the mysteries hinted at in his deceased grandmother’s belongings at the same time as he was grieving for the woman, and researching her life in 1930s Berlin, 1940s Palestine, and post-war Israel. You watch a son and his mother sift through their relative’s possessions, laughing and arguing about them, making whatever sense they can of a complicated life. The nature of that life – the life of a German jew who expatriated before it was too late, but never cut ties with her home country – gives the film historical threads that make it far more interesting than its narrow, deeply personal starting point.
The film opens with Goldfinger rolling up the shades to let light into his grandmother’s flat. He and his family begin sorting through the apartment’s contents in a peppy montage of furs and gloves and knick-knacks. When they get to the reams of paperwork and correspondence, Goldfinger’s mother wants to toss it all, but he insists on rifling through it. In so doing, he stumbles onto evidence that she and her husband traveled to Palestine with a Nazi SS officer named von Mildenstein as he sent travelogues back to Germany to be published in the brutal propaganda rag Der Angriff. After she expatriated, she maintained a friendship and correspondence with this agent of the Third Reich. In trying to make sense of all this, and in the face of his mother’s eagerness to let it all be lost to history, Goldfinger ends up visiting von Mildenstein’s ancestors in Dusseldorf, who have news clippings proving their father won a libel suit against a paper that named him as a colleague of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. By the time Goldfinger’s chased down every lead, and visited the von Mildensteins again to share the hard truth that their father was not only an SS officer but the man who recruited Adolf Eichmann, the mystery has taken a back seat to the generational conflict between the director and his mother Hannah.
Hannah’s hard exterior gets established early on, as she’s encouraging her son to just let it go. “People you don’t even know!” she says, scorning his urge to preserve her mother’s letters. “I didn’t ask and she didn’t say,” she says later, when he shows her evidence of her mother’s travels with von Mildenstein. “We didn’t ask and we were not told.” It isn’t until she’s reading a tragic letter from her own grandmother, Arnon’s great grandmother, that the story begins to stir her. Even then, her instinct to let it all go remains. The moment late on when they tour Berlin and visit the addresses where her ancestors live, and the battle between her curiosity and her second-generation-survivor’s instincts peaks, is the high point of the film.
Goldfinger’s filmmaking, light on flourishes and shot in the kind of straightforward documentary style the History Channel used to master, deftly merges the historical inquiry with the personal, present-day generational conflicts. He punctuates the film’s weighty story with lighthearted sequences showing his family dealing with the sheer volume of stuff their grandmother stuffed into her flat. His interactions with the von Mildensteins never feel confrontational. They are honest, sometimes pointed, and always sincere. Perhaps his responsibilities to the story and his expectation that one day herds of people would sit down to watch what he put together helped. Whatever the reason, you will marvel at the discipline and humanity on display in those conversations, where others might rightly have cast themselves as prosecutor. The story Goldfinger managed to cobble together is engaging and heartbreaking, and gives the audience plenty of evidence to decide whether Hannah is right to describe emotional curiosity as something “you either have, or you don’t, you can’t learn it.”
BYT had the chance to speak with The Flat’s director, Arnon Goldfinger:
THE FLAT seems like the kind of story Hollywood would love to fictionalize and release as a drama– somebody at Studio Canal is probably already trying to cast Albert Brooks to play your grandfather in A NAZI TRAVELS TO PALESTINE. First, has anyone actually tried to suggest that to you? Can you imagine a Hollywood version of your grandparents’ story that you would be comfortable with? How do you feel about the miniature industry of movies about the Shoah in general, and its apparent shift from things like SCHINDLER’S LIST or THE PIANIST to thrillers like THE DEBT that deal more with Israel and the aftermath of the Holocaust for jewish collective memory?
Funny, lately I am hearing this question again and again, and people come to me with the full cast, including Christoph Waltz (as Von Mildestein) and Adrien Brody (as my self). I believe this idea comes from the fact that THE FLAT delivers an inspiring story. It probably also represents the desire for seeing a good multilayered story. But maybe it alludes to the fact that some people wrongly assume that a documentary film cannot produce as complete and moving an experience as a fiction film does – of course I do not agree with that. I believe documentary films, especially of this kind that screened in theaters, can produce a strong emotional experience – sometimes even
stronger than fiction. However it is seems that documentary’s exposure to the public is much smaller than that of a Hollywood film.
As for SCHINDLER’S LIST, I would tell you an interesting story. When it was released in Israel, Israeli TV asked me to make 12 minute report about a screening of the film to the survivors that were on that list. It was a very special event. I was sure it would be very difficult for those old people to bare the “Hollywood” representation of their history. Much to my surprise, most of them did not notice the “needs” of Spielberg to format the details of history into cinematic expression and therefore to “adjust” some of the events for his dramatic view. Most of them felt the film was a very authentic representation of the happenings. I think this reaction tells us something about the fragility of memory and the need to have your story told. As for myself I am more interested in the documentary films that deal with those questions of representation of the Holocaust. I see that documentary filmmakers allow themselves to portray a complex, diverse and non-stereotypical picture of history. In that respect I see the other Spielberg project that deals with the Holocaust- the recorded testimonials from more than 50,000 Holocaust survivors, as a much more important project than his fiction one. Although needless to say it has a much smaller audience than the Hollywood picture.
Purely as a filmmaker, what was the strangest or most interesting part of this project for you? What about as a son?
I used to say that there were two persons who made this film:- one was a filmmaker and the other one was a family member. And they did not always agree with each other. I think that the conflict between those two parts in me made the process more complicated but deepened the result. As a filmmaker the most difficult part was becoming a character onscreen. This was not a simple choice. The way in which the film developed led me to understand that I had to leave my position behind the lens and become an on- screen subject. The hardest thing was to try and forget the presence of the camera. The way to do so was to try as much as possible and concentrate on those who were with me in each of the scenes. However, It was not easy to lose my “director’s instincts.”
I think that as a son and grandson, the most difficult task was to try and be as little judgmental as possible, or at least less pre-judgmental. I think that for a son to be judgmental toward his parents (especially toward his mother) is very obvious and almost natural. I understood that I must resist this instinct in order to get closer to a real understanding of my mother’s (or grandparents’) motivations, decisions and secrets.
How long was the total timeframe of making The Flat? How do you make filmmaking decisions as you’re learning a story like this for yourself, and at the same time trying to tell it? Did you feel like you had a direction you wanted the piece to go, and if so how did it change as you learned more about not just your own family but the von Mildensteins?
I would say that as person that carries Yekkeh (German Jews) genes, I like to plan things well in advance. Of course the way this film developed taught me time after time that this is impossible. It was an important lesson for me as a documentary filmmaker as well as a human being. I may say that in many aspects this film forced me to do things I have never done before. The shooting spread over a period of a bit more than 3.5 years and it took another 1.5 years for the post production. Along the way, in order to raise the necessary finance from the different foundations I had to write quite a few scripts. Following the discoveries, obviously none of those scripts was similar to the final cut. But writing them served also as a tool to arrange and re- arrange my thoughts. I might say that although it is clear that the plot in those scripts was changed from draft to draft, I believe that the final version of the film came out of the same fundamental thoughts I had at beginning of shooting: The meaning of your family’s history, the tension and communication between the different generations in the family, and ‘what can you learn about people from the things they left behind’.
What did your mother think of being in the film?
I believe that she agreed to take part in the film mainly out of her care for her son. She just wanted to support me. However I think that as time goes by she also became curios to see what I/we would find. In the end everyone is interested in learning about their parents’ secrets.
Before THE FLAT was premiered in Israel, I had a small screening only for my family. After that screening my mother told me a sentence which I remember clearly, she said “now I understand that this film was also important for me”. I think she really had to have this distance from the events in order to be able to feel in that way. Interestingly, the process that she started, very gently, during the making of film continued after the film was released. In Israel many people of her generation who saw the film used to say: “we too do not know about our parents past, in our family we did not ask those questions”… Realizing that “she is not alone” made my mother somehow more “secure”
and open to look at her family’s past. I am quite sure that if I will now tell her things I discovered about her parents she will be very interested in hearing them. On the other hand I do not believe she’ll go to any archive to do research.
How has making the film affected your relationship with your mother? What about having the film released internationally?
To put it simply: we became closer; it is like now we share something that is just about the two of us, we’ve been together on a journey. She is very supportive. We were together in all of the premieres in Israel; we’ve been together for the two premieres in Germany. She couldn’t come with me now to the USA, but she calls me every two days and is very interested in the way the film is being accepted.
You have that conversation with your mother on the way to visit the von Mildensteins together, about wanting to avoid treating the conversation like an interrogation– how did you feel towards them at that point, knowing the daughter was proud to proclaim her father had won a libel suit, knowing she considered that proof he was no Nazi? Was there any amount of adversarial feeling or anger on that train ride? How about once you were there talking to them again, with all that new information in pocket?
The meeting with Edda and Harald brought up complex feelings. They are very nice people, and they welcomed me with such enthusiasm, warmth, and kindness. I was a bit overwhelmed by it. Do not forget that I was a stranger from a different country that entered their house with a camera (and with a whole film crew). I felt they trusted me. And then, following my findings, my visits became much less convenient. I had to ask them and tell them difficult things. This was of course not my preliminary wish. I was hoping to find some other information about Mr. Von Mildenstein that would support their version. However things did not turn in this direction and it became a very hard task for me to tell them so. My mother thought differently, but I could not follow her advice – not to tell them what I know. I understood that I was already on a totally different track than she was. I felt I could not keep the truth to myself, and the truth is that I researched and find things about Edda’s father. I would say that for me the last scene with Edda is a scene that is unavoidable.
Have you kept in touch with Edda? How is your relationship with the von Mildensteins in the wake of the movie being released?
Yes, we kept in touch; during post production and especially when the film was finished and was released in Israel and at the international film festivals, I kept her and Harald her husband informed on the developments. Last June the film was released in Germany and a few weeks before I screened the film to her and Harald. I must say that they accepted the film in a very noble way, and I am deeply thankful for that.
What sort of reception has the film had in Israel? Can you see the same generational differences in attitude toward the past that are in THE FLAT in the critical or mass audience reaction to it?
The FLAT was an unexpected huge success in Israel. The film benefited from a rare combination of acknowledgment from the critics, the festivals and theaudience: It received 5 awards (including the Israeli Academy Award for best doc.) and the critics praised it. For example, Time Out Tel Aviv chose to place it at the top of its recommended films for 49 weeks under the headline: “not to be missed”. But the biggest surprise was that out of 26 new releases in the last year, it became the third most viewed Israeli film in the local cinemas, (all the other 25 films were fiction films). The film became kind of an event in which some people came twice to see it. The first time they came because they heard it was a good film, and the second time they came with their parents or children (depending on their age) hoping that the film would open a discussion in their family. I was surprised by the number of families that share the same “connection of silence” and a feeling of disconnection with their own past. People saw in THE FLAT an opportunity to start a conversation they never would have dared to open.