The curse of Netflix is its excessive supply: most nights it takes us half an hour to choose something. While browsing movies last night, my husband chose The Flat based on its intriguing description — and then watched in puzzlement for 15 minutes before realising it wasn’t in fact a thriller.
It isn’t. While “discovering a shocking truth” will always make for a good horror flick, this Israeli movie is a documentary — and as such, it can take the premise of a discovery to a whole new level. When Arnon Goldfinger, grandson of German immigrants to Tel Aviv, starts cleaning out the flat of his recently deceased grandmother, he merely documents the sheer amount of work his family has to take on. We see his relatives merrily throwing out all sorts of mementos; in fact, they all seem a little too cheerful, given that their grandmother has just died. After a few quick sequences of arrivals and familial chatter, the gaze of the camera starts lingering on different objects — a whole drawer full of white leather gloves, or rows and rows of German books. Goldfinger says little in those first minutes, until he catches his mother throwing out large amounts of personal letters and documents without even looking at them. This seems to upset the filmmaker, and he starts questioning his mother, who dismisses his objections. From here on, his filmmaking takes on a more somber quality that characterises the entire documentary: While Goldfinger narrates the story, the camera captures the emotions and asks the questions. It stays focused on Hannah Goldfinger’s face for a long, poignant while after she waves her hands in dismissal, and we don’t need a narrator to tell us that Arnon Goldfinger has started to question his mother’s view of her parents and the value of memories.
Goldfinger interferes in the clear-out: he finds a bookseller (whose view on the German classics — “nobody wants this anymore” — broke my heart a little) and takes on the many letters and newspaper cuttings in his grandparents’ flat. We learn of their story: born and raised in Berlin, Kurt and Gerda Tuchler left for Tel Aviv in the 1930s with their daughter Hannah. After the war, they returned to Germany regularly. Their flat was filled with memories of Germany, and they never learned Hebrew, but while Hannah Goldfinger speaks German, none of her children do. Over the course of three generations, the family has firmly settled in Israel. Now Arnon Goldfinger, who knows nothing more about Kurt and Gerda’s story than those bare essentials, discovers a newspaper cutting that mentions his grandfather in a travel piece — but bizarrely, it is the front page of an aggressive Nazi newspaper. He quickly discovers that his grandparents, while still living in Germany, were acquainted with a high-ranking Nazi, Leopold von Mildenstein, who accompanied the couple on a trip to Palestine in order to promote emigration among German Jews. After some inquiries and interviews with old family friends he learns that his grandparents not only kept mementoes of this friendship, but actively continued it after the war.
There is no alarming music or footage of shocked faces to mark this discovery, only Goldfinger’s uncomfortable silences, but it marks the turning point of the documentary. From here on, Goldfinger has a mission — not only does he feel that he needs to learn more of his family history, but he sees the bizarreness of this story. It might not be much of a shocker for me watching this in 2013, but for a Jewish family, behaviour like Kurt and Gerda’s must go against every fiber of their identity. Goldfinger travels to Germany to see the von Mildenstein’s daughter, who has enthusiastically invited him to her house. Completely puzzled, and with the obligatory bunch of flowers, Arnon meets Edda, a tough, intelligent woman who confirms that Kurt and Gerda did indeed keep a close friendship with the von Mildensteins. She’s happy to see Arnon and later welcomes Hannah like a long-lost childhood friend. For her, their parents’ friendship seems to show the spirit of humanity in the face of horror and pain, although she’s very quick to point out that her father had nothing to do with the actual horror: he seems to have left Germany shortly after his trip to Palestine and resurfaced after the war. Edda, like Hannah, seems firmly in denial.
In Germany, Arnon and his mother meet distant relatives and uncover more of their family history. Much of it is depressingly familiar: whole branches of the family tree wiped out, very few tangible memories left. Just as the viewer gets the feeling that Hannah Goldfinger is finally allowing herself to discover her roots, Arnon discovers that her grandmother, Gerda Tuchler’s mother, died in a concentration camp after refusing to emigrate with her daughter. How could Gerda be friends with a man who, by association at least, was responsible for her mother’s death? Hannah refuses to believe the whole story — her parents never spoke of it, and nobody dared to ask any questions. This is the story this movie really tells: faced with unimaginable horrors, many emigrated Jews simply taught their children not to ask questions. A whole generation grew up not knowing what had happened to their families, and only now, grandchildren are starting to dig up those stories. Arnon Goldfinger goes all the way; he finds out the facts about Leopold von Mildenstein and dares to confront Edda with them. Nobody gets an easy way out of this story. There is still enough pain to go around for everyone, be it from discoveries of murdered grandmothers or uncomfortable truths about seemingly impeccable fathers.
In its simplicity and long silences, The Flat moved me more than any documentary or movie on the subject has done before (and there have been many of those, because the guilt will never stop for Germans, and rightly so). We are left with Arnon and Hannah Goldfinger standing in the rain, silent. It seems fitting, this silence. You can’t stop digging up the facts, even if you know you will never truly understand the story you uncover.