An Extraordinary Family Story

in 52nd Krakow Film Festival

by Giovanni Ottone

Looking inside a family and determining the core of the relationships between individuals of different generations is a difficult task — even more so if it’s your own family. Not to mention if you must face tragedies like wars and massacres, separations, unknown secrets and social implications. When a movie is about a family, the easiest way to deal with it is to make it in the form of a melodrama. But in the case of a documentary director the real challenge must be to give visual strength to his story and to combine truth with an appropriate distance from the events, in order to stir up fresh emotions in the audience.

The 52nd Krakow Film Festival, which offers a high-quality selection of documentaries and short films from all over the world, presented 20 films in its Documentary Competition — and almost half of these were about family stories. They showed, in different ways and circumstances, strong characters and feelings. What’s more, some of these were “autobiographical documentaries”. The directors focused on facts regarding the identities of their own relatives and carried out dramatic investigations of familial roots.

In our opinion, it’s an important choice for a country like Poland, which contains a rich cultural heritage and such a tragic historical past, to show through films the importance of discovering the complexity of existential itineraries and familial backgrounds.

The Flat (Hadira), Israeli Arnon Goldfinger’s second full-length documentary, is an Israeli-German co-production and won the FIPRESCI jury’s award. It could be considered an outstanding thriller of souls. In fact it’s an astonishing trip into a very special history of a desperate attempt of attachment to a culture and to a country, despite the Holocaust.

At the beginning of the film the director and members of his family must clear out the contents of his grandmother’s flat, shortly after her death at age 98. Gerda Tuchler, for all the 75 years she spent in Israel, had never learned Hebrew well. Her apartment is full of German books and artefacts. She and her husband Kurt were Jews, born and raised in Germany and members of the pre-war Zionist intelligentsia in Berlin. They immigrated to Palestine in the 1930s. In the flat Goldfinger discovers a copy of a fanatic Nazi propaganda newspaper, Der Angriff, containing an article titled “A Nazi in Palestine”, with pictures of the author, Baron Von Mildenstein, and his wife, accompanied by the Tuchlers in a friendly manner. Step by step it emerges that there was a long-standing relationship between Goldfinger’s grandparents and the Baron, a high-ranking SS officer, and his wife, probably explicable by common cultural roots. But more shocking is the evidence that Gerda and Kurt had often travelled back to the fatherland after the Second World War and continued their friendship with Von Mildenstein, covered by the Americans.

The find sends Goldfinger and his mother off on a voyage that leads him to Wuppertal in Germany, where he meets Von Mildenstein’s daughter, Edda, who has cocooned herself in her own form of denial about her father’s past. But Arnon proved that the Baron at first was Eichmann’s superior during Nazi anti-Jewish propaganda campaigns and the planning of the Final Solution and, after 1934, became a member of the secret services and a close collaborator of Goebbels. The question, without a sure answer, is: did the Tuchlers only partially know Von Mildenstein’s agenda or did they strongly want to deny the facts due to being scared of losing their best connection with the old times in Germany? Even more tragic is the discovery that Gerda probably knew that her own mother had died in a concentration camp.

At the end Goldfinger’s relationship with his reluctant mother, Hannah, increasingly takes centre stage. He cannot understand his mother’s complete disinterest in the past and long-time refusal to ask questions, any more than she can comprehend her son’s passionate interest in every buried family secret. So The Flat shows clearly different generations’ reactions to the Holocaust. The fascinating investigation is driven without any rhetorical or moralistic overtones. The mechanism of progressive revelation is built in the most delicate way to form a thorny psychological multi-layered puzzle. On camera the director remains an impassive presence, courteous and surprisingly calm and dignified; an active but non-judgmental witness.