Saturday, April 28, 2012

Great Doc at TFF--"The Flat"

Playing at Tribeca Film Festival

Great Doc at TFF--"The Flat"

(from 4/27/12)

The Flat is flat out my favorite film at the Tribeca Film Festival. Israeli director Arnon Goldfinger (The Komediant) had me at hello with his simple beginning in which disinterested family members clean out his grandmother Gerda Tuchler's flat in Tel Aviv after she passed away at the age of ninety-eight. The award-winning filmmaker expected his entire film to be about the astronomical number of possessions found during the emptying of the flat where Gerda and her long-deceased husband Kurt resided after they fled Berlin in 1933. But something entirely unexpected happened as his cameras rolled that took his story in fascinating new directions. The original premise wasn't replaced, but Goldfinger and a new story that took on a life of its own added many complex and thrilling layers to it. The eureka moment was when Goldfinger discovered letters and photos that revealed there was much more to his grandparents' lives than anyone, including his mother (under the umbrella in the photo) realized. Especially troubling was that this Jewish couple befriended and traveled to exotic locations with a high level Nazi and his wife. In fact, Von Mildenstein helped the Tuchlers settle in Palestine, and corresponded with them until 1939. After the war, astonishingly, the Tuchlers resumed their friendship with the man who had hired Eichmann and worked many years with Goebbles. Most of the film is about Goldfinger putting together the pieces of the story by conducting interviews, searching archives, and, significantly, tracking down Von Mildenstein's hospitable daughter, Edda, who insists her father was a journalist and not a big-wig in the Nazi regime during the thirties and forties. His movie doesn't just show his step-by-step process when trying to solve both a family and historical mystery but also deals with his internal battles when deciding what to do with the information he has uncovered in regard to his mother and Edda--and even his grandparents. The Flat has been playing in Israel for seven months and will be released in Germany in June. It deservedly won Tribeca's award for best editing in a documentary, which could be a harbinger of great things in America. I was fortunate to speak to the modest, personable and thoughtful Arnon Goldfinger early this week at the festival.
Danny Peary: The early part of your movie hit home with me and I'm sure with anyone else who has cleaned out the home of aged relatives--particularly in that the belongings of their entire lives are deemed worthless by outsiders. An expert (see photo) looks at your grandparents' impressive library and tells you that nobody reads Shakespeare, Goethe, or The History of the Jewish People anymore and that all these old books are worth a pittance. An expert says their lovely Persian rug is worthless. Uncaring movers toss their decades-old furniture off a balcony. How did you feel watching strangers come in and say that what your grandparents accumulated over their lives had almost no value?
AG: The making of the film raised a lot of conflicts in myself. I was the director of the film but I was also a son, a grandson, and, though I didn't include it in my film, a father. For me, as the grandson, I just wanted to grab that guy in furniture-throwing scene and make him stop what he was doing. But being a director, I had to steel myself and let it happen. There was this feeling I had that nobody really cares and that when the apartment is emptied it will all vanish--and that's it.
DP: Did anybody else in your family share your enthusiasm for what you were learning about your grandparents?
AG: Well, they gave me the space to work, but you see in the film that they weren't that interested in what was going on and that continued. When they saw the film for the first time, they were shocked because they knew nothing. My mother joined me step by step on the journey...
DP: A bit reluctantly at first.
AG: Yes. But she knew much more than the others because she was involved. She knew what she was participating in. But my brothers and sister and cousins weren't interested.
DP: You live in Israel?
AG: Yes, in Tel Aviv. I used to live not far from my grandmother.
DP: Since you lived close enough to visit, did you know her well?
AG: After I made this film I understood how much I didn't know. I know her much better now, even though there are still many things that remain a mystery. Also I know my grandfather much better because I was only fifteen when he died. He was a judge. He was very remote.
DP: Like someone at the head of dinner table who doesn't say much but seems to be judging everyone?
AG: Yes. In an interview I did that is not in the film, a writer described him as "the head of the mafia." Nobody knew what he wanted but people knew not to do what he didn't want. I liked him as a character, like a grandson likes his grandfather, but there was a big distance between us. One very special thing about making this film is that I realized that grandparents think about their grandchild but the grandchild doesn't think about his grandparents with much depth. I hadn't before, but for five years, I thought about my grandparents on a daily basis. I thought about their lives, I learned about their conflicts. I feel I know them now but of course there are limitations to that.
DP: What would you like to ask them if you had five minutes with them? I'm sure you'd want to know about their relationship with the Von Mildensteins but is there something more?
AG: I would want to know their reaction to what I found in my research but I'd also want to know what they thought of the film that I made about them. During the making of my film, I thought a lot about whether I should film it and whether they'd want me to do it. If they didn't want me to know about them, then why did they leave behind so much evidence, including the letters? Do I have their permit to do it? It's not an easy question. There is a moral issue here because they are not alive to protect themselves. What is my right? The only way I could deal with this was to conclude that I had some kind of job or duty or destiny and I must make the film. It felt beyond my control, almost as if I were called to do it.
DP: Well, it may have started out as a family story but it turned out to be a historical story. Von Mildenstein was Eichmann's first boss, and he worked with Goebbles for about seven years, so it turns out he was an important figure in history. I don't know how much of an historian you are but if you're filling in blanks in history than you must feel that you have an obligation to do it.
AG: It was filling in blanks in history. One of the things that I started to do, which was unusual in my family, was to ask questions. I've found out at screenings of this film that many people have families where no one talks about the past and unpleasant issues. When you ask questions you take something from the subconscious and push it a little into the conscious. That's the move I think I caused. I don't know all the answers now and it's not like everyone is now open in my family and speaking about everything, but there has been a change.
DP: Your mother plays a big part in your film. But not your father. I wondered if he was told anything more by his parents.
AG: My father is very, very ill. I filmed him but he was almost not in a conscious situation so after talking about it with my family I made the very difficult decision not to include him in the film. But I doubt he knew more than my mother.
DP: You had to make hard decisions about what was appropriate to leave in and what was inappropriate and needed to be taken out. I would think the hardest moment for you was when you present Edda with the evidence that her father, Von Mildenstein, was a Nazi. This was after years of her denial about her father's past and not wanting to know certain things. She doesn't accept the evidence you present fully and you can see she's been struck a blow. What were your feelings when you were filming that scene?
AG: It was for sure one of the two hardest scenes for me to film. After doing research I was sure that Von Mildenstein didn't quit the Nazi regime--and I double checked it and triple checked it. In the film I go to an archive. In reality I went to many archives. The minute I was certain about Edda's father, I knew I had to tell her. I could not release my film without telling her. Also our relationship would not allow me not to. It was beyond any question. It was less a conflict about telling her and not telling her than how to tell her. What would be the cost of telling her? I had to take the responsibility for what would happen. I didn't know what would happen when I told her.
DP: So did you say to her, I have something to tell you and you might not like it?
AG: I told her that I found something new and that I must show it to her if it was okay with her. I asked her for permission. I had to travel a long way. It was not in my neighborhood. Edda and her husband live in Wuppertal, which is in the middle of Germany, east of Dusseldorf. I didn't know what was going to happen but I realized that I must be in front of the camera sitting beside her. The embarrassment made the scene very difficult for me. You can see that on the screen.
DP: You're looking at her face. It was almost as if her life flashed before her eyes when you told her. She'd been telling a story about her father to everyone for many years and now an outsider comes in and says what she said about him was wrong. What was your reaction to her reaction?
AG: It was very hard.
DP: Afterward did you think you'd ever see her again or did you think the cost of your telling her was that she would never want to talk to you again?
AG: In the film there was a cut, but in reality that scene continued. We stayed that day and talked about other things, and we are still in touch today.
DP: Which is great. Did she cry?
AG: No. There is something very amazing about the film. Nobody cries in it. There isn't a single tear. Today in Israel, when people use the television remote and go from channel to channel they can't watch for a minute before somebody cries onscreen. Suddenly I make a film with stories and drama and nobody sheds a single tear. But that is the film. It has such a subtext of feelings and all kinds emotions--that's the story of those characters and this world.
DP: Has Edda since told you how she felt when you told her the truth about her father?
AG: No. People have asked me if she has since started to do research and calls me to tell me about it. And the answer is no. For me, I ended my journey and now it's her journey, and her decision, and I'm not going to ask her about it. If she wanted to tell me, I'd go there, but she hasn't. Maybe she is doing research about her father but feels it's private.
DP: When she told you that her father was a journalist and not part of the Nazi regime, did you feel she knew the opposite and was lying to you?
AG: No, no, no, I don't believe that. There is a whole range between the truth and the lie. And I don't believe the characters are fully conscious of the truth or in complete denial. I think it's in-between. They know something. I don't think she's lying.
DP: I assume Edda feels some guilt now knowing that her father wasn't, as she told you and everyone else, "clean as a whistle." But does your mother feel guilt after learning that her parents had a close friendship with a Nazi, not just prior to the war but after? I'd think that was a revelation.
AG: Yes it was. You know, I think the film did something very strong to my mother beyond your question. It's very hard for an outsider to understand that. The truths that we reveal in the film are very complicated and uneasy to process. But when truth is revealed there is a feeling of relief because there is not longer the burden of hiding a secret or denying the truth or being afraid to learn something.
DP: What was the other scene that you found the most difficult?
AG: The scene with my mother when I show her the letter from her mother, who chose to stay behind in Germany [and was sent to a concentration camp]. It was a very strong letter. I thought a lot about the best way to show it to her but then suddenly we're both being filmed and unexpected things are happening. It was very hard. Another difficult scene for me was being in the cemetery in Germany with my mother and trying to find a family headstone. Especially the dialogue between us made it uncomfortable.
DP: But at that point your mother--and I'd think this was a great thing for you--was involved.
AG: Yes, you can see that she's more into what I have been doing. There is movement with her, there is a change in her.
DP: I think that she is exhibiting curiosity and realizes that what she knows after decades of accepted ignorance about her family isn't going to kill her. In fact, she had joined with you in trying to discover any stories that are out there about your family, and it's actually a positive thing.
AG: Yes, I feel that way. Since the film was released, she has a much better understanding of what you were talking about than during filming. When she saw the film she experienced much more of that relief I mentioned. It was a process that continues.
DP: I wonder if her parents ever thought of moving back to Germany after the war ended. My reason is that you seem to believe that being German was more important to them than being Jewish.
AG: I don't think it's a matter of being more important. What is very clear for me is that they were first Germans and then Israelis. They were German Jews. We took out many scenes that we filmed but there was one scene we took out that we were sure we'd include. It was a scene in which my mother and I visited my grandparents' last flat in Berlin. I'm making a film called The Flat so it made sense to go there. The guy who lived there was a physics or math professor who wasn't Jewish but had taught for three years in Israel. He was very friendly and was thrilled that Israelis were coming and made a surprise for us. After my grandparents left Germany in the early 1930s, there had been many tenants and the apartment had been rebuilt at different times. Well, he found for us the floor plan of the apartment in the 1930s. It was amazing. They had an apartment with seven huge rooms, with places for the cook and nanny. I asked my mother on-screen, "Did you have a nanny?" And she said, "Who do you think was raising me?" We looked at each other and realized what they left behind. They lived on a little street next to the Ku'damm, which is like Fifth Avenue, and very bourgeois. They had to have lived a very good and honorable life--and then they were kicked out.
DP: Other than Coca Cola, which lied about their employee Von Mildenstein's Nazi past after the war, is their a full-fledged villain in your movie?
AG (laughing): I think it's an ironical anecdote about Coca-Cola. The film is not at all about good guys or villains. I tried very hard not to be judgmental, and it was not easy. There is nothing more natural for a child to be judgmental toward his parents. But I tried not to be because I didn't know everything and I'd only seen part of the truth. Sometimes at the beginning I'd say, "Oh, my God, why did she say or not say that?" But instead of stopping there and drawing a conclusion I'd take one more step and I'd discover why.
DP: Also you probably hoped--beyond hope--that there were even some good parts to Von Mildenstein.
AG: That's absolutely true. Somehow I believe he did have them.
DP: Well he had a nice daughter for one thing and he did help your grandparents leave Germany when it became dangerous for Jews.
AG: That's right. It's hard to think about it, and I'm not a historian, but some people in the Nazi regime were people.
DP: And even those who do evil usually don't think they're doing evil.
AG: That's right.
DP: The Flat is a joint German and Israeli film. Explain why that's important to you.
AG: Nowadays in Israel you can't make a big film, and I consider this a big film, without it being a co-production, without raising money from abroad. However, while I knew I must have a co-producer from Germany, it wasn't because of the funding. It was because I wanted to have someone of my generation from the other side, the German side. I had to struggle all along the way with my own stereotypes. I was afraid of being an Israeli Jew making a film on this subject and meeting Germans and trying to have a real discussion. I wanted to have someone making the film with me, who paralleled me. There was my partner and co-producer Thomas Kufus--we went a long way together. And I had two German researchers, Mareike Leuchte and Franziska Lindner. We had a lot of discussions.
DP: Like them, I felt I understood what you were experiencing during filming, beginning with the flat being cleaned out and then finding letters and other evidence and deciding to make the story play itself out. I related to this journey, if that's the right word.
AG: Yes, it's a journey and a process. I lived through it. When I began I didn't realize I'd learn about my great-grandmother. Or finding Edda, Von Mildenstein's daughter. That was complete luck. It was one of so many lucky moments I experienced as a documentary filmmaker. Edda might not have wanted to talk to me or she might not have spoken English. But she was happy to meet me and she spoke fluent English. Both she and her husband were very nice and welcoming to me and to my mother on the second visit.
DP: Over the five years, were you worrying that you had no ending until you unraveled your grandparents and Von Mildenstein's full story? Because while you were making the film, you were going to the archives and visiting Edda three times. So were you thinking, "Where is all this leading, and can I ever end my movie?"
AG: To be honest, I was thinking about something that people who see the movie now would think is very strange--I didn't know if I even had a story for a film. For a long time, this was my worry. It was because I didn't know about a conclusion and also because I wasn't sure there were connections between all the fragments. And--I know this sounds ridiculous now-- I wasn't sure this story would be interesting to anyone else...


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