Quiet film about emptying grandmas apartment packs a surprising wallop

You’re a young Israeli Jew, your beloved grandmother has just died and you’re cleaning out her apartment in Tel Aviv. Suddenly, unexpectedly, you come across photos and letter showing that she and your grandfather — German Jewish immigrants to pre-state Palestine ­— were close friends with a high-ranking SS officer. And not just during the 1930s, but after the war. How do you even start coming to grips with that? 

Just when it seems that the genre of the Holocaust film has exhausted every possible angle, along comes something like “The Flat,” with its stranger-than-fiction premise that has been wowing critics and audiences at film festivals from Jerusalem to Tribeca to Berlin.

A brilliantly understated and highly personal film by accomplished Israeli documentary filmmaker Arnon Goldfinger, it is a German film as much as it is Israeli, examining the traumas, secrets and unanswered questions of the second- and third generation, psychic wounds that bind both countries together in uneasy alliance.

From “The Flat”

A big part of the film’s power stems from the serendipity of its genesis. When Goldfinger’s mother and siblings go to clean out the apartment belonging to Gerda Tuchler, his recently deceased 98-year-old grandmother, Goldfinger takes along his camera to record what he imagines will be an exercise in family nostalgia. And for a while, that’s how it unfolds.

Gerda and her late husband, Kurt, were typical “yekkes,” the patronizing term used for the uptight, overeducated German Jews who never seemed to fit in to Israeli society. As they paw through the couple’s drawers and closets, Goldfinger’s sister and niece giggle and coo at the trappings of a more elegant era —piles of handbags, costume jewelry, elbow-length gloves, high-heeled pumps. They play dress-up, laughing at each other as they wrap fur stoles around their necks and mince across the bedroom floor.

Meanwhile, Goldfinger wanders through the library, his camera panning across the rows of leather-bound books, virtually all in German — his grandmother, like many yekkes, never learned Hebrew well, so when he visited they would converse in English, “the only language we shared,” he notes.

Then the first odd newspaper clippings appear, the ones with the swastikas on the upper-right corner. Digging further, the family comes across dog-eared photographs of the Tuchlers sitting in cafes, laughing on boats, and posing in cobblestone plazas with an unknown but clearly European couple. Stacks of letters are found, and the giggling subsides, replaced with a quiet, tentative curiosity.

I won’t give away the entire story, but the twists and turns it takes are excruciating yet fascinating, like pulling a bandage off a still-moist scab, as Goldfinger slowly uncovers his grandparents’ decades-long friendship with Nazi Party member Leopold von Mildenstein — a senior officer in the SS credited with bringing Adolf Eichmann into the Gestapo’s Jewish division.

Determined to bring the truth to light, Goldfinger journeys to Germany to meet von Mildenstein’s daughter, developing a relationship with her that shadows — no, parodies — that of their forebears. But it’s his relationship with his mother, the daughter who claims no knowledge of her parents’ strange alliance, that forms the film’s powerful emotional core.

Throughout, Goldfinger plays the model narrator, his face impassive, his voice relentlessly calm, as if he were performing a scientific experiment rather than uncovering a wildly disturbing chapter of his family’s history. The lack of histrionics gives the film a poignancy it would have lost if its tone were more forced.

This is a film that will have you talking, for quite a while afterward.

“The Flat” screens at 3:50 p.m. Thursday, July 26 at the Castro, 4:25 p.m. July 29 at the Roda, and 4:20 p.m. Aug 2. at CineArts.

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor of J. She can be reached at sue@jweekly.com.