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Film Review

The Flat

In 2007, Arnon Goldfinger's grandmother, Gerda Tuchler, died in Tel Aviv. His grandmother and grandfather (on his mother's side) had fled Germany in 1937, part of a wave of German Jews who went to what was then Palestine, now Israel. His grandparents never really felt comfortable in Israel, and always considered themselves Germans. Her comfortable apartment was filled with books in German, and loads of gloves, shoes, and clothes. As the family goes through her apartment to sort and prepare it for sale, they discover a series of letters to and from friends in Berlin, and most mysteriously, a large coin with a Star of David on one side, and a swastika on the other side. They also discover copies of a notorious, virulently anti-semitic German newspaper that has an article describing a trip in 1934 by a senior Nazi official, Leopold von Mildenstein and his wife, to Palestine, accompanied by Kurt and Gerda Tuchler, the grandparents. This reflected a short period when the Nazis and German Zionists both had the same goal of encouraging Jewish emigration to Palestine. Many of the letters were to and from the von Mildensteins, and most surprisingly, continued after the war. It was clear that his grandparents had been long time friends of the von Mildensteins, even after the war. Arnon Goldfinger, an Israeli documentary film director, began to question his mother about this. His mother, Hannah Goldfinger (nee Tuchler), had been born in Germany but came to Israel as a little girl. She knew nothing of this relationship, and to Arnon's surprise and dismay, seemed not to care at all about uncovering more of the story: "What does it matter"? This is just the beginning that led to Goldfinger making a searing documentary: "The Flat."

Goldfinger began to read the letters (all in German), and they clearly described a friendship that seemed inconceivable. They had met when the Nazi government decided to send a senior person, Leopold von Mildenstein, to Palestine, to see what the Zionists were doing, and whether they could encourage German Jews to emigrate. A German couple, Arnon's grandparents, were introduced to the von Mildensteins, and they traveled by ship together to Palestine. Both couples liked each other, and this was early in Hitler's reign, before more draconian anti-Jewish laws were passed. That trip was described in the Nazi newspaper that Goldfinger had found in the flat. The grandparents returned with the von Mildensteins to Berlin??, but as conditions became worse and worse for the Jews, finally emigrated to Palestine in 1937. Hannah, his mother, grew up in Israel, and knew no other life. In general, the Israeli's had avoided thinking about the Holocaust until the Eichmann trial in 1961 in Tel Aviv. Eichmann, a senior SS official in charge of transporting Jews to the death camps, had been hiding in Argentina and was captured and secretly flown to Israel to stand trial. The Eichmann trial riveted the world, especially Israel. The younger generation of Israelis first became truly aware of the extent and horror of the Holocaust, and the survivors (of the Holocaust) began to talk about their experiences. The trial seemed to help ease the sense of guilt that survivors felt because they survived while so many were murdered. And there had been a residual sense of shame among Israelis that the European Jews had gone to their deaths without fighting back. But the trial showed how difficult it was for an intimidated and starved population to mount more than passive resistance, especially when their native countries actively collaborated in the persecution and roundups. If they ran away from the roundups, where could they go? Some gave their children to non Jewish friends to care for, convinced that they would return in a year or two. Also, until later in the war, the Nazis had successfully concealed the fact that the trains were headed to death camps. It seemed inconceivable that the Nazis, as cruel as they were, could actually be murdering millions shortly after they arrived at the "resettlement camps". German Jews in particular, who had thoroughly assimilated into German culture, many serving with distinction in the German Army in WW I, simply could not believe the rumors of death camps. There were famous exceptions, such as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and several other ghetto revolts, plus sabotage at some of the camps and factories. Some Jews who succeeded in escaping joined local resistance groups, but often those same groups would murder them. A young, physically fit person had a slim chance, but children and the elderly had no chance. All of this poured out at the Eichmann trial. The Israelis were stunned, as were American Jews. Still, Arnon mother had grown up in a culture that didn't want to focus on the Holocaust. Yet there seemed to be more unanswered questions about his mother's lack of interest in his parents' story. Even when Arnon takes his mother to Germany to meet with Leopold von Mildenstein"s daughter, his mother seems disinterested. When searching in a German cemetery for her grandparents' graves, unsuccessfully, Hannah says "I feel nothing." There is certainly more denial when von Mildenstein's daughter is questioned about her father's activities during WW ll. She says he was forced to join the Nazi party ("everyone had to") and never supported Hitler. In fact, it is stunning when Arnon uncovers documents in newly opened East German archives that prove that her father joined the Nazi party and the SS very early, ended up working with Joseph Goebbels, and becoming Eichmann's boss (!!!). And still more emerges, yet we never are able to see into Goldfinger's mother. She remains, like many survivors and their children, closed, from the pain and sorrow.

Goldfinger has produced a fine and very important film, yet uses an unusual technique that resembles home movies. He is one of the subjects in his film, and we see him filming, talking to people, traveling, hear his voiceovers, sometimes just attempting to undo a puzzle. The story unfolds for us as it unfolded for Goldfinger. Yet there is nothing amateurish about this powerful film. It is fast paced, continually surprises, often thriller like, and often sad. The cinematography is accomplished; we feel that we are part of the conversation. Only 97 minutes long, "The Flat" is very moving and will surely generate much discussion. It has already received a number of Israeli film awards. Best on the big screen but should hold up on a home screen as well. Just opened at the Embarcadero and the Albany Twin, and given the subject, will probably not remain very long.

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