Just saw a four-star, maybe five-star movie I want to share with you.
The Flat is an Israeli documentary film by Arnon Goldfinger. It has been making a big splash in Israel, where it can also be seen in a stage version, since it first came out in September 2011. And it has done well in Germany since it came out in June of this year. It is only now reaching a broad American audience.
When Arnon Goldfinger’s grandmother, Gerda Tuchler, died at age 98 in Tel Aviv and her family gathered to clear out the apartment where she and her husband Kurt had lived for 70 years since escaping the Nazis in 1933, they uncovered evidence that Arnon’s grandparents had had a life-long close relationship with a Nazi couple. And not just any Nazi couple, but with the man who was Adolph Eichmann’s predecessor and one-time boss, Leopold von Mildenstein. And by long-term, I mean that they picked up this relationship after the war, despite the fact that one of the Tuchlers’ own parents was murdered in a concentration camp.
The two couples met when Kurt Tuchler, working for the German Zionist organization, contacted von Mildenstein in the early 30s because von Mildenstein, a Second Lieutenant in the SS, was then in charge of Jewish Affairs and was known to be interested in the Zionist project. Von Mildenstein wanted to know more about Palestine and asked Tuchler to accompany him to Palestine as his guide. The two men took their wives with them, and the couples began a friendship that lasted, apparently, to the end of their lives.
Although the film is in documentary format, it plays like a thriller. There are three main characters. Arnon, a third-generation Israeli with a fearless curiosity about his family’s past; his mother, Hannah, committed to the core to living in the present and keeping the past out of sight and out of mind; and Edda von Mildenstein, the daughter of the Nazis who were Arnon's grandparents' friends.
The Flat is an intensely engrossing story which lays out, in full display, the worldviews of three generations directly affected by the Holocaust. In the first generation are Kurt and Gerda Tuchler, German Jews who find their identity pulled out from under them and their nation captured by forces intent on destroying them, and the von Mildensteins, a couple whose story is not fully revealed at first, but comes alive through Arnon’s dogged research efforts. In the second generation are the children of both couples: Arnon’s mother, Hannah, who raised her children as Israelis in Tel Aviv; and Edda von Mildenstein, who welcomes Arnon and Hannah into her home in Germany warmly and becomes, unwittingly and involuntarily, their gateway to the past. Arnon becomes the voice and the spirit of the third generation.
In revealing these facts about the story I am not concerned they will act as spoilers for viewers. To watch the story unfold is an experience you won’t forget. There are scenes which will stick with you, like the time Arnon looks at his mother, as if for the first time, astonished that she is able to learn what he is learning – both of them travel to Germany to dig for details – with apparent equanimity. He is becoming an emotional wreck; she remains cool and collected.
What makes this film so rich is the fact that one can't resist speculating about motives, because the conversations between the characters draw you in so tantalizingly. Hannah, for example. Why is she so cool-headed? Is it her own disposition? Or German family training? Is her choice to ignore the past entirely a personality trait or just evidence that she is a typical member of her don’t ask/don’t tell generation, who chose to push the Holocaust and the war out of sight and mind because it was simply too hard to bear? Is Edda living in denial for all her public persona as a modern-day liberal progressive citizen of the new Germany? Is it possible her father lied to her as well as to Tuchler? Is Arnon making the right interpretation of the documents he uncovers or is he working on other stereotypes? Did Kurt Tuchler accept Leopold von Mildenstein as a friend after the war because of their common identity as Germans? What did von Mildenstein tell him about his participation in the SS? One desperately wants to know what information was exchanged between the two men after the war. Did the relationship pick up and carry on with lies? Or does their relationship reveal something about the nature of our capacity to compartmentalize that we had not considered before? Do we have any evidence to change our view that you can't walk through mud without getting your boots muddy? The questions keep piling on.
In one memorable scene we see Arnon and his mother sitting in a German train, going to visit Edda and distant relatives still living in Germany, working out between them whether to use the word “Nazi” in discussing the past. They decide it’s better not to, only to discover later that it falls off the tongues of the people they meet with no apparent hesitation. This episode is only one of several where you watch history unfold and learning take place.
We see Hannah learn of the “Stolpersteine” – the “stumbling blocks” that have been put in the ground in various places to remind people living today of people murdered in the Holocaust. Hannah learns to her astonishment that somebody has put one in to remember her grandmother in front of her grandmother’s apartment in Berlin, and begins to think out loud of maybe doing something similar for another relative. You see her drawn into the past in a way she never expected.
The documentary brings out the eternal nagging questions about the Holocaust - How could so many people remain silent, apparently forgetting, or lying, even to themselves, about its horror and its extent. How could there be so many willing and unwilling enablers? Many will want to avoid it for that reason. That would be a mistake. There is much to learn here.
Allow me a brief discursion for a moment. One of the things I had a great deal of difficulty with living as an American in Japan for over twenty years was how differently Japanese seemed to approach information. I was struck over and over how they could sit on information in situations where I think Americans would be more forthcoming. How valid this is as a national cultural comparison I can’t be sure. But over and over again I would be surprised – and not just at my workplace – by how information was more highly guarded than I found to be the case elsewhere, how people could know things and not reveal them, how information could be considered a reward that could be given or withheld at will, as a way of marking insider or outsider status, respectively. I began – rightly or wrongly – to think that the default condition in America was to offer information before it was even solicited and in Japan to withhold it even in some cases where it was solicited. I found myself constantly dealing with the question of whether it was “appropriate” that information I had available to me should be simply given away.
You can find all kinds of counterexamples, and I could be describing my own living and working situation rather than the larger Japanese culture, but the point I’m trying to make is the same either way. Just as I discovered years earlier that Germans tended to close doors in their apartments and Americans tended to keep them open – a fact which could be explained, of course, by climate differences – this example of difference I am for the sake of argument attributing to culture illustrates that there is a “default condition” and that – all things being equal – there can be pressure – sometimes profundly strong pressure – to conform to the norm.
This, I think, is what is at work in Arnon’s attempt to understand the inexplicable behavior of his grandparents, whose ability to pick up again with the von Mildensteins after the war strikes him as evidence of madness. It also explains his difficulty in not understanding why his mother is not a basket case when he himself is coming apart in a cemetery search for missing ancestors.
There was something about the culture of 1940s Germany (and elsewhere, as I suggested by my Japan example) that suggested one should reveal what one knew only with considerable caution. Kids pick these behaviors up from their parents and the value seeps into the subconcious where, like most cultural values, they are taken for granted and spoken of as common sense.
To our eyes, the German protest, “We just didn’t know!” sounds hollow. It is almost impossible for us to believe, especially now when we live in an age bombarded by reality shows and the explosion of facts of the information age, that it could be possible to live in relative silence. Complicating the issue are the revelations that there were indeed large numbers of people who did know what was going on under the Nazis. The problem may lie in the concept of “knowing.” It is much simpler to see denial as a refuge of any loser, and moral cowardice as a German national trait.
What is fascinating about this is the degree to which don’t ask/don’t tell is embraced as a policy by both Hannah and Edda, the Jewish daughter and the daughter of Nazis, each for their own reasons, each seeming to display the values of the class to which they both belonged, as children of parents who clearly shared the same cultural space as members of the same intelligentsia. It's almost as if they were both saying, "Nice people don't know these things."
How could von Mildenstein not feel too guilty to pick up a connection with a Jewish friend, given his participation in the “final solution”? How could the Tuchlers share a table with the killers of their parents? The problem, I think, is that the questions, when posed in such stark language, masks the human ability to compartmentalize. “Das war damals,” I heard as a kid. “That was then.” As if to say, “It happened on Mars.” “Not our farm…not our pig,” as a friend of mine would say. And your participation? “We were all swept up. You cannot determine our degree of participation, if any,” is the usual response, sometimes with justification, sometimes not.
Arnon has a key to this understanding, whether he wants to use it or not. He tells us at the very beginning of the story that when he went to visit his grandmother, they would speak to each other in English. Despite living in Tel Aviv for seventy years, her Hebrew was too limited, and Arnon spoke no German. Even his mother was content to throw away her first language as an unpleasant remnant of the past, and struggled with it when she first began looking at the documents. Members of the same family can be alienated from each other through the languages they speak. Gerda Tuchler and the von Mildensteins shared Goethe and Schiller, Mozart and Apfel Strudel. Why wouldn’t she want to return to Germany after the war? Why wouldn’t she want to see the high culture of Germany – including the Strudel – in her friend, and ignore the rest?
The first generation makes it happen; the second goes into denial; the third recreates it, complete with the filters of a changed and changing value system, the limits of memory and the arbitrariness of what information is available for interpretation. It’s not a task for sissies.
Arnon comes across as somebody engaged in a heroic task. You want him to succeed. You wish him every success. Hannah comes across as a victim of her time, but as she finds her stride, she too becomes somebody you come to care for. Edda is more enigmatic. Was it that her father didn’t tell her he was in the SS? Should we be considering the possibility – and this question applies to many others such as Günter Grass, as well, – that one might be able to walk through mud and not get one's boots dirty, unlikely as that may seem? Does Edda now have to start over with a much darker image of his father? And will she?
The many questions the world has asked since the mass slaughter of the Jews in World War II keep coming back, no matter how many times we think we have settled them in our minds. Guilt and innocence; the need to forget in conflict with the need to remember; the duties, if any, of a survivor; individual vs. collective responsibility – they go to the core of who we are as moral beings. Some people choose to give up asking after a time. Others revisit the question all their lives. This is a film for the latter, people who understand that each time we go around, we have another chance to deepen our understanding.
Movies usually entertain. Documentaries usually inform. Good documentaries, like good fiction, stimulate the mind. As a structured work of art, I’d give this film four stars. And because it opened new perspectives and left me with far more questions at the end than it would have occurred to me to ask at the beginning, I could be persuaded to add another star.