Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Flat: Inconvenient Family History

Bipartisan camaraderie sounds all well and good, but the longstanding friendship between the Tuchlers and the Mildensteins defies belief.  Kurt Tuchler was a prominent German Jewish Zionist.  Baron Leopold von Mildenstein was an SS propagandist.  Yet, evidence suggests they remained on good terms, even during the post-war years.  It was a disconcerting bit of family history Israeli filmmaker Arnon Goldfinger discovered while cleaning out his late grandmother Gerda’s apartment, resulting in his very personal documentary The Flat (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York at the IFC Center.

Although they lived in Israel for decades, Goldfinger’s grandparents never learned Hebrew, standing pat with their native German.  Frequently, they made return pilgrimages to Germany, despite their painful wartime memories.  From time to time, they would catch up with the Mildensteins, whom they had originally met under strange circumstances.

The first mention of the Mildenstein name Goldfinger finds in the titular flat is an old article written by the Baron for a notoriously rabid National Socialist newspaper titled “A Nazi Travels to Palestine.”  Mildenstein was the Nazi and Tuchler was his guide.  They might have been an odd couple, but this was actually a time when some within the National Socialist Party, such as Mildenstein, advocated Zionism as a means of solving the so-called “Jewish Question.”

Obviously, Mildenstein’s article did not convince many of his colleagues.  However, a long friendship was apparently struck up.  Goldfinger starts out with the intention of determining how genuine it really was.  He eventually unearths letters in which Tuchler asks Mildenstein to intercede on behalf of relatives still in Germany.  Since those family members ultimately perished in the Holocaust, the problematic Mildenstein was unwilling to help or rather remiss in his efforts.

Yet, the real meat of the film involves Goldfinger’s attempts to get his mother and the grown daughter of the Mildensteins to come to terms with the ghosts of their parents’ past.  However, due to his deferential politeness, Goldfinger never pushes the Mildensteins’ descendants very hard, declining to challenge dubious documentation supposedly vindicating the Baron.

There are many fascinating aspects to the Tuchlers’ story, including the degree to which they continued to self-identify as German, even after all the horrors of the war.  While Goldfinger raises many questions about the nature of their friendship with the Mildensteins, the truth remains indeterminate.  It is entirely possible all four principles would have characterized it differently.  Nonetheless, Goldfinger’s somewhat passive approach never generates a satisfactory payoff or any sense of closure, beyond the literal closing of the Tuchlers’ flat.

Goldfinger’s investigation is often quite intriguing, especially in its early stages, but his pop-psychoanalytical sessions with his disinterested mother revisit some well trod documentary ground.   It is almost like the filmmaker throws in the towel midway through the third act.  Shot in low-fi digital, it also might be the least cinematic theatrical release in years that was not produced by an underground Chinese Digital Generation filmmaker.  Challenging up to a point, The Flat just doesn’t seem to know what to say or where to go down the stretch.  For the understandably curious, it opens this Friday (10/19) in New York at the IFC Center.