Sunday, July 27, 2014

Unpacking an Inherited Past: Arnon Goldfinger's The Flat

Director Arnon Goldfinger and Edda Milz von Mildenstein in The Flat

Memory is a tricky business, all the more so when the memories involve the Nazi Holocaust. Hundreds of academic texts have struggled with the complicated dynamics of inherited memory, but Israeli filmmaker Arnon Goldfinger's The Flat (Ha-dira, 2011) dramatizes the messiness of familial memory without pretense, building to a complex portrait of the said and the unsaid things that contribute to our family narratives. It is Goldfinger's second documentary feature – his first, the widely-acclaimed The Komediant released in 1999, documents a family of American Jewish vaudeville performers from the 1930s onwards. With The Flat, Goldfinger moves closer to home, in the most literal way. A cross-generational tale of history, mystery, and trauma (both personal and historical), The Flat never fails to hold the viewer's attention. It is a deceptively small story with world historical scope.

Long mocked for holding fast to their Germanness after immigrating to Palestine, most of Israel's German Jews (known still by the slightly derogatory term "Yekkes") arrived in the 1930s and 40s. Arnon Goldfinger's grandparents, Kurt and Gerda Tuchler, who arrived in 1936, were part of this wave. Kurt died in 1978, but Gerda lived to the age of 98, passing away in 2006. Arnon reveals that his grandmother never learned Hebrew, leading Gerda to interact with her many grandchildren (who didn't want to learn German) in English. With her death, Arnon and his family face the daunting prospect of dealing with the Tel Aviv apartment the Tuchlers inhabited for decades.

Gerda and Kurt Tuchler visiting Germany after WWII
The film starts small, satisfied with documenting a family adventure into the boxes, closets, and bookshelves of the grandparents' overstuffed apartment. Arnon describes their flat as a little piece of Berlin in the heart of Tel Aviv, overflowing with books and artefacts of a different era and a different culture, one which contrasts vividly with the present-oriented life he experienced growing up in his mother's home. Within the walls of this small apartment, Arnon discovers a vast library of books (German versions of Shakespeare and Balzac, weathered copies of Nietzsche) and boxes of letters and files going back almost a century. The camera records a lot of good-natured fun as adult siblings poke around the backs of closets they were never permitted to open: trying on some of the many dozens of posh formal gloves and handbags, giggling as they play with their grandmother's fox fur stoles (with heads and limbs still disturbingly attached), or marvelling at a bicycle license issued to their grandfather in 1911. But their interest wanes quickly, leaving our documentarian and narrator alone among the books and papers, the majority of which are in his grandparents' native German. As his mother Hannah eagerly disposes of her parents' effects, hoping to clear the apartment as quickly and efficiently as possible, Arnon works diligently through the literal towers of old letters, photographs, newspapers and magazines – eager to uncover the early lives of two people he loved but begins to realize he knew very little about. 

At the centre of this personal investigation lies a little-known footnote to the Nazi era: a surprising cooperative project between a Nazi official and the German Zionist Federation, and a lengthy exploratory trip in 1933 to look into Jewish settlements in Palestine.  An SS officer (Leopold von Mildenstein and his wife) and two members of the German Zionist Federation (Kurt and Gerda Tuchler) toured Palestine together, a trip that was recorded in a series of articles by von Mildenstein in the Nazi propaganda newspaper Der Angriff, published in 1934, under the title "A Nazi Goes to Palestine." (Von Milderstein would soon be appointed the Nazi's "Jewish Affairs Officer" – where he would eventually hire Adolf Eichmann, who would soon take over von Mildenstein's position with disastrous consequences for Germany's Jewish population.) This is an astounding partnership, one born of the early Nazi flirtation with the idea of relocating the Jews (an idea which was rejected as not 'final' enough). In short, for a brief period German Zionists and Nazi's worked together to further their mutual – albeit very differently motivated – desire for Germany's Jews to settle elsewhere. More shocking than this, however, is that Arnon's family apparently had no inkling of the Tuchlers' involvement in the Nazi visit to 1930s Palestine. And most shocking of all, at least for Arnon, is the discovery that after the devastation of WWII and the Holocaust, his parents continued to be close personal friends with the von Mildensteins.

With the discovery of the documents in the cramped Tel Aviv flat, Arnon begins a journey that takes him five years to complete. Twice he goes to Germany, once with his mother. He meets Edda Milz von Mildenstein, the original von Mildenstein's daughter, as well as relatives he didn't know he still had. With his mother, he walks down the streets of Berlin where his grandmother's family lived, and encourages Edda to enthusiastically recount her fond memories of the Tuchlers and their long association with her parents. The charming Edda and her extremely personable husband welcome Arnon into their apartment twice, though those visits grow progressively more awkward as his research into her father's checkered career deepens. In the course of tracing his grandparents' relationship with the von Mildenstein's, he uncovers more and more information that makes that relationship almost unfathomable, information that von Mildenstein's daughter is unwilling to accept. 

Hannah and Arnon Goldfinger in The Flat

The film's most poignant and revealing moments emerge from Arnon's difficulty in comprehending his mother's lifelong ignorance of this startling feature of her parents' lives, and even more so her continued refusal to be "moved" by his revelations. Arnon's natural curiosity regularly pushes against the wilful amnesia that is Hannah's inheritance from her parents. This generational divide is perhaps the true subject of The Flat, and Arnon's shock is as much a subject of the film as his mother's purported indifference. To his credit, the film regularly questions the filmmaker's own perspective, even as it also determinedly follows its trajectory.

The world is rarely as black and white as we would like it. Some might fault the film for failing to venture more firmly into that historical minefield, or for ultimately leaving so much about von Milderstein's wartime activities suggested and unexplored. But that is clearly not Goldfinger's objective or interest. While these questions are left open (and controversial), the force of the film comes from the courage with which Arnon confronts the intersection of these historical questions with his own, private, family life. And when the confrontation happens, he doesn't shy away – even in the face of his mother's active indifference: if von Mildenstein's Nazi past is a stain on his life and even his children's, what of the Tuchlers' involvement with him? What does that mean for Arnon's family? And for his still-evolving memory of his grandparents? Is the past "none of our business" as Hannah seems to believe, or do we have an obligation to seek out the truth, wherever it takes us? What value is there in the mucking about in the lives of the dead, when the present beckons so forcibly? How does the (sometimes wilful) ignorance of the second generation face up against the well-meaning curiosity of the third generation – and is the privileged position of the younger generation a luxury the earlier one can't afford?

Leopold von Mildenstein (right) employed by Coca Cola in the 1960s
Split between Israel and Germany, between Germans and German Jews, there are nevertheless profound echoes and almost-parallels. The most notable moment of non-equivalence is perhaps the contrast and affinity between Arnon's mother and Edda von Mildenstein. Arnon's mother, confronted with Arnon's research, at first refuses to believe that her own grandmother (Gerda Tuchler's mother) was murdered by the Nazis. Whether Hannah's difficulty comes from the burden of accepting that victimhood or a general disbelief that her parents could have kept such a thing from her for most of her life is unclear, but she certainly appears to be struggling to incorporate an element of the past which does not fit with her own self-understanding. Her denial, her incredulity, her discomfort, is echoed powerfully in a later scene, when Agnon hands documents to Edda which seem to confirm that her father never quit the Nazi party, even into the late 1930s, as Edda vehemently believes, and in fact remained an important member of its propaganda arm well into the war. The women – two thoughtful, strong women living opposite sides of a single narrative – stand in for the millions of post-war Germans and Jews whose lives have been formed so powerfully by the memories they don't have: lives painted in relief.

The power of the film lies in its deceptively prosaic entry into an experience shared by millions – dramatizing, with alternating humility and determination, the very personal and powerful moments when the second and third generations of European Jews and of Germans struggle with the inherent messiness and complexity of the Holocaust era. Arnon is no historian, nor should his film be held up to that yardstick. He is a son and grandson who begins his project with the most uncomplicated of intentions: getting to know his grandparents by way of the stuff they left behind.

A personal journey with large implications, Goldfinger's film reminded me of Kamal Hachkar's Tinghir-Jerusalem which I reviewed last month. Familial memory – whatever our backgrounds – are as formed by the memories we don't pass on as by those we do. And when those questions are finally asked, it is not only our inherited past but also our present which is revealed and often fundamentally altered. 

As with the best documentaries, Goldfinger's film poses more questions than it answers, pointing its lens inward rather than outward, focusing on the people who populate our shared history. Perhaps the most vivid illustration of this are the albums of postage stamp-sized photographs his grandparents kept, their details almost invisible to the naked eye, patiently waiting for magnification in order to tell their stories. For a brief moment, The Flat turns our focus to a concealed universe that rewards our attention, but sits provocatively just outside our field of vision.

The Flat is currently streaming on Netflix and available on DVD.

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on July 27, 2014. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.