By Joan Ellis
Doesn’t the richness of history lie in the footnotes? It’s there that we find the memories and stories that make our past come alive. These come in the form of movies, books, plays, memoirs, and oral histories, and each adds texture to the events of any time or place.
The Flat is one of these. Directed and lived by Arnon Goldfinger, it is a scrupulous documentary that starts out as one thing and ends in another, unexpected place. Arnon’s grandmother Gerda has just died at 98 and the family must empty the flat in Tel Aviv where she had lived since leaving Berlin with her husband Kurt in the 1930s.
When the family gathers to do the job, Arnon discovers his siblings and cousins have no interest in their family history; his mother is set to quickly bag and toss everything in green plastic. Searching through the documents, pictures, and papers, he finds a Joseph Goebbels propaganda newspaper with the headline, “Zionists travel through Palestine with a Nazi.” That would be Arnon’s grandparents, Gerda and Kurt Tuchler, in the company of Leopold von Mildenstein and his wife.
The two couples were friends before the war, and inexplicably, after the war ended. It is the question that bedevils Arnon. By luck, he finds Edda von Mildenstein, daughter of Leopold and visits her in Germany. The conversations between the two form the core of the film as they explore their own conflicting emotions and those of their forbears – a Jewish couple and a German couple, closest friends before and after the Holocaust. Arnon’s grandparents were German to the core and returned to their homeland whenever they could.
When Arnon uncovers the truth of Leopold von Mildenstein – as an SS officer and architect of the Holocaust – he, as he must, presents it to Edda who looks as if she has been struck. At this extraordinary moment we realize that Edda and Arnon’s calm civility is yet one more instance of the complex reactions to the Holocaust all wrapped in varying shades of repression, silence, and denial in both Germans and Jews.
After repeated insistence by Arnon’s mother that she has no interest in the past, she thaws slowly as she watches her son’s quiet search. To a nearly unfathomable degree, Arnon himself pursues his search without judgment.
As we watch him, we see a man who seems to know deeply that to search for answers and emotions that support a judgment would destroy his goal of understanding. In his hands, this was a search for something much bigger than scandal; he was not looking for catharsis. He explores without anger, trying to see the side of each person he is studying.
Sensing the broad spectrum between truth and lie, Arnon never once judges Edda for believing all this while that her father was a journalist. Their civility with each other in the face of horrific discovery is a lesson for all of us in today’s polarized world.
Joan Ellis’ address on the Internet, which contains her review library, is JoanEllis.com.