The past is a foreign country. Not only do they do things differently there, but things tend to get lost in transit. How many secrets lie buried in a deceptively spacious crawl space, or lost in the underbrush? Arnon Goldfinger came face to face with his past while cleaning out the Tel Aviv apartment left by his near-centenarian grandmother, Gerda Tuchler, after her passing. He set out to make a short film about what we can learn of someone through what stuff they leave behind, but what he found was the much deeper, weirder story of The Flat.
Gerda had lived seventy years in Tel Aviv, from back before the country was called Israel. Still, she still remained “German in her blood”, never really mastering Hebrew and maintaining her living space like the apartment she’d left in Berlin. As Jews emigrating in the mid-1930s, it’s no surprise that they left in advance of the rise of National Socialism and missed the lives they’d led back home. What’s surprising — to Goldfinger and to us — is the Nazi propaganda squirrelled away in Gerda’s apartment.
Specifically, the series of travelogues published in Der Angriff — think FOX News for actual Nazis — about the experiences of an aristocratic SS officer, Leopold Itz, Edler von Mildenstein, in what was then called Palestine. But Mildenstein was not alone in his travels; along with his wife he was accompanied by a pair of Zionist Jews: Kurt and Gerda Tuchler.
Politics, they say, makes strange bedfellows; Zionists and Nazis in the mid-1930s couldn’t be stranger. But from a certain perspective there’s a natural alignment of interests: the Nazis wanted Jews out of Germany and Europe; the Zionists wanted Jews in Palestine. Mildenstein was named the head of Jewish affairs for the SS and advocated for something along the lines of self-deportation up through 1936. But to find what happened after the Tuchlers left Germany would take some more digging.
As you might expect, this is not the easiest dirt to turn over. Gerda never spoke of the Mildensteins, and her daughter, Goldfinger mother, was not inclined to ask. An old friend of Gerda’s notes that it’s always the third-generation German Jews — like Goldfinger — who ask so many questions; the second generation doesn’t want to know. “You don’t understand what it was like”, she tells us. “I’m glad you don’t understand.”
But it’s precisely the third generation that is distant enough to begin to ask some of these questions dispassionately, while on the other hand remaining close enough to reach the first and second generations to ask them in person. Being in this position, it’s a duty Goldfinger does not take up lightly.
I will admit that there is some short-term benefit to Germany’s post-war amnesia, where nobody would ask what someone did during the war if they could help it. Like South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, it provided a way to get on with life without ripping half of the remaining society away in the name of some retributive justice. After all, look how well vigorous de-Ba’athification turned out in Iraq.
But after some time our eyes must turn to our past again, and before it is buried in the advancing weeds of time. Goldfinger turns his camera, gently but firmly making us remember a story that is more nuanced, textured, and messy than we would sometimes like to believe it was.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: if it applies to documentaries, fail.