Weeks after the death of their grandmother Gerta, documentary maker Arnon Goldfinger and his family descend upon the woman’s apartment in Tel Aviv to sort through the bits and pieces of a long, rich lifetime in Palestine/Israel. Until, that is, they come upon old Nazi newspapers from the 1930s and learn a disturbing aspect of their grandparents’ lives that they never knew in “The Flat."
“The Flat” starts out simply as a family, videoed by documaking member Goldfinger, delves into their grandmother’s possessions that have accumulated since she and husband Kurt arrived in then-Palestine before the Nazi oppression began against the Jews in Germany in the early 1930s. Everything seems normal as they go through Gerta’s huge collections of gloves, jewelry, handbags and shoes, it is a coin that has a Star of David on one side and a Nazi swastika on the other that garners their attention.
Soon, they come upon a Nazi propaganda newspaper, Der Angriff (The Assault) and an article, A Nazi in Palestine, that has a story about a German Fascist official traveling in Palestine before the war. The account includes a photo of the Nazi, Baron von Mildenstein, and two other people – Gerda and her husband Kurt Tuchler. This begins Arnon Goldfinger’s video chronicle of the lives of his grandparents and his search to find the truth about them and their relationship with von Mildenstein.
Goldfinger uncovers a whole lot of potential skeletons in the Tuchler family closet. His grandparents, though living in Palestine and then Israel for 70 years, have embraced the old country, Germany, and its ways. This includes a long time friendship with the von Mildensteins that went on before and after the war. This collaboration continued despite the fact that Gerda’s mother was a victim of the Holocaust who died in the Theresienstadt concentration camp.
“The Flat” loses steam when Goldfinger contacts von Mildenstein’s daughter Edda, and his own sister Hannah, and confronts them with the revelation that the Baron was a high-ranking Nazi officer in the Bureau of Jewish Affairs (responsible for implementing Hitler’s Final Solution for the Jews in Germany) and his grandparents were Nazi sympathizers. Both Edda and Hannah vehemently deny that possibility. This ambush style of documentary making felt like an attack, a la Michael Moore, instead of an honest seeking of truth.
Arnon Goldfinger starts off his project with a fascinating dilemma for his family. Suddenly, the second and third generations of the Tuchlers have to face the fact that their nice old grandparents had a direct connection to a Nazi official – and they were friends, not enemies! “The Flat” could have been much shorter and tighter. Instead, the director inserts himself into the family controversy and muddies the waters. I give it a C+.
Arnon Goldfinger never makes it clear why he began filming the dismantling of his 98 year-old grandmother's apartment, so we can only assume he was doing this because he's a documentary filmmaker with a need to document. Still no explanation leads to questions. Was this one of those documentaries which began as one thing and turned into something very different, like "Paradise Lost?" Or did Goldfinger know all along that there was a huge family secret which he could turn into a mystery thriller of a film like "Capturing the Friedmans"? This isn't the only question which hangs over "The Flat," a documentary which indeed begins intriguingly enough but which takes at least one more dubious turn along the way.
After discovering a newspaper article about how his grandparents ushered a Nazi around Palestine in 1933, Arnon keeps digging and correspondence and photographs begin to turn up as his mother goes through boxes. Indeed, his grandparents stayed in touch with the Von Mildensteins, not just leading up to the war, but after it as well. His mother apparently knew nothing about this. Arnon is able to track down the daughter of the Mildensteins and visits her in Germany where Edda and her husband greet him warmly and share more stories - she remembers his grandparents with fondness. Later she tells him something extraordinary about one of his great grandmothers which his mother never told him apparently because she also did not know.
As more family lore (and more family) is unearthed, Arnon gets his mother to make the trip back to Germany with him and they discuss whether they should bring up the word 'Nazi,' deciding instead to ask indirect questions. Edda, after all, understands her father's history as a having been a journalist outside of Germany during most of the war. So why, when Arnon finds out otherwise, does the man who was hesitant to use the word 'Nazi,' present Edda with the information? Why not leave her in peace with her delusions in retirement? The woman is his mother's age, and, in fact, Arnon's own mother is portrayed as caring little to nothing about this past history. And Edda has pictures of her visiting the Mildensteins as a child. It's as if Goldfinger, the third generation, wants the second generation to account for the first.
Essentially, "The Flat" is a personal look into the pre-war Zionist movement and the Haavara agreement which allowed the transfer of Jewish property from Germany to Palestine, one of the few countries willing to allow immigration. Once the facts have been presented, the film begins to run out of steam and one is only left to question why the filmmaker took this approach.
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