An image from "The Flat," directed by Arnon Goldfinger. (IFC Films )
At an event during the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year, the Israeli documentarian Arnon Goldfinger was surprised to find a famous face in front of him.
Michael Moore, who was serving on a jury at the festival, had come up to Goldfinger to rave about the Tribeca entry “The Flat,” the Hebrew- and German-language movie that Goldfinger had made about his family during World War II.
“He told me that before he went to see the movie he thought, ‘Not another film about the Holocaust; I don’t want to see that,’” Goldfinger recalled in an interview. “Then Moore said to me, ‘But I watched it and I couldn’t believe what I saw. This is a new perspective no one’s told before.’”
Moore was on to something. “The Flat,” which won a prize at Tribeca and hits Los Angeles theaters with a new English voice-over on Wednesday, seems to head down a familiar road before taking a startling turn.
When Goldfinger’s 98-year-old Germany-born, Israel-dwelling grandmother, Gerda Tuchler, died, Goldfinger and his extended family headed to her Tel Aviv apartment to clean it out. At first their discoveries are what one might expect from a woman who emigrated to Israel before World War II.
But then their banal exercise took a surprise turn: Buried amid the elderly Jewish woman’s papers was both Nazi propaganda and references to a relationship Tuchler and her husband had with a German couple, the Von Mildensteins. The Von Mildensteins were hardly ordinary citizens: Leopold von Mildenstein had been a high-ranking member of the SS who was cited as a mentor by Adolf Eichmann in the Nazi’s infamous trial.
To say more would be to ruin some of the film’s surprises, but what ensues is Goldfinger’s slow-burn discovery of a relationship so improbable it verges on shocking, as the director travels between Europe and Israel to talk to family members and descendants of the Von Mildensteins.
In so doing, he offers not only a compelling historical account but a meditation on family, denial and national identity. At its heart is the question of what happens when relatives make choices that seem at odds with accepted wisdom or one’s own beliefs.
“If somebody would have told me years ago I’d make a film about the Holocaust, I would have said ‘no way,’” said Goldfinger, who previously made a documentary about a well-known Yiddish actor. “But as I started this journey I realized there were all these moral questions that bothered me that I needed to ask.”
The movie represents a new kind of Holocaust film, one which seeks to coolly reorder assumptions and move away from the broad sentimentality of, say, a “Schindler’s List.”
The reaction to "The Flat" in Israel (where the movie won Israel's equivalent of the Oscar for best documentary) and on the festival circuit has largely been accepting, Goldfinger said. But he added that there are those who find troubling the idea that Jews and Nazis had a close relationship, or that a Jew felt a connection to Germany even after the Holocaust.
“It’s a big taboo, and some people can’t digest it. It’s not easy to think that people of the same ethnicity are doing something you think you wouldn’t do,” Goldfinger said.
Family documentaries are enjoying a mini-vogue, with Sarah Polley making one about her relatives in “Stories We Tell” and Rory Kennedy exploring the life of her famous mother in “Ethel.” But far from being easy, Goldfinger described the process as very fraught, especially because his siblings didn’t want to accept what he was discovering. His mother also had never been told about her parents’ history with the war.
“I found there were almost two directors on this film. One is me as a filmmaker and the other is me as a family member,” he said. “The grandson in me would say, ‘Do you really want to know this?’ And the filmmaker in me said, ‘You have to keep going.'”