The acclaimed Israeli documentary, The Flat (2011), looks deep into the hidden lives of people that we believe to know. The film (dir. Arnon Goldfinger) is personal. The story picks up shortly after the death of Goldfinger’s grandmother, Gerda Tuchler, a vibrant society woman, who when she moved to Palestine from Germany, never lost her love for her homeland. As Goldfinger and his relatives help to clear out her cluttered old flat, he discovers possessions that he finds mysterious and troubling. The Flat documents Goldfinger’s search into his grandmother’s history, and dredges up some little known information on her past life.
The object that piqued Goldfinger’s interest was an old Nazi newspaper. He couldn’t understand why his grandmother would keep such a thing. As the search progresses, Goldfinger finds more evidence that reveals his grandparents had a close friendship with Leopold von Mildenstein and his wife. Von Mildenstein was a prominent SS officer in charge of Jewish Affairs, the post later held by Adolf Eichmann. Goldfinger is flabbergasted that his grandparents not only knew the Von Mildenstein family, but carried their friendship on after the war. His journey to verify and understand this relationship takes him through Israel and Germany. He picks up pieces of the puzzle along the way and interviews many people who knew his grandparents.
Although dry at times, many scenes in The Flat are filled with genuine heart and warmth. The shots of Goldfinger and his family digging through and playing with his grandmother’s things are a joy to behold. One can only imagine the devastation this family felt at the loss of an elder. To see Goldfinger’s family rejoicing in their memories of Tuchler is a gift.
Unfortunately, despite its interesting subject matter, the film progresses far too slowly. I just couldn’t bring myself to care about the stakes of this story. I believe this is mainly due to the awkward and aimless interviews that are peppered throughout the film. It was hard to tell if they suffered due to Goldfinger’s skills as an interviewer, or because the people interviewed simply had nothing of value to add to the story. At times these interviews edged into the territory of spectacle, with Goldfinger attempting to manipulate specific reactions out of his subjects by delivering shocking news.
One instance of this was Goldfinger’s interactions with the daughter of Leopold von Mildenstein. This interview made me very uncomfortable and was clearly positioned to gain a specific type of reaction from Ms. Von Mildenstein. Goldfinger goes out of his way to tell her that her father was a prominent figure in the Nazi party, a fact that she had previously denied. Goldfinger couldn’t seem to believe that she was having problems accepting the fact that her father was indeed a Nazi. BIG SURPRISE. Not only is this scene incredibly invasive, it felt like it was included simply for shock value. It’s a shameful attempt to gather her reaction for personal gain. In my opinion, Goldfinger crossed the line, sacrificing a person’s trust for the sake of his film, an action that I find reprehensible.
As it is, The Flat falls short of being enlightening. Goldfinger focuses too long on gathering evidence of his grandparents relationship with the Von Mildenstein family, and not enough time answering the more interesting question: why did they maintain it? Had he expanded his thoughts on this, rather than leaving it to the tail end of the film, perhaps The Flat would be more worthwhile.