Filmmaker asks hard questions of family histories
Israeli-born filmmaker Arnon Goldfinger had a difficult chore. After his grandmother Gerda died in Tel Aviv at the age of 98, the bulk of the job of cleaning out her apartment — the “flat” of the title of his 2011 documentary — fell to him.
Gerda Tuchler was what one might call a hoarder, albeit a neat one. In The Flat, Goldfinger and his family gather to divide and discard hundreds of books, boxes of clothes, and mountains of photographs and correspondence. His mother sighs over some 70 years’ worth of accumulated material, none of which seems to capture her interest. Goldfinger, on the other hand, is fascinated to find a 1934 article in Der Angriff — a Nazi newspaper — by Leopold Von Mildenstein about a trip he took to Palestine with his wife — accompanied by Gerda and Kurt Tuchler.
“The key point for me was finding the newspaper, but it took me time to understand that,” Goldfinger said in an interview with Ha’aretz about The Flat. “It was indeed hair-raising to see that newspaper, but not very much more than that, then. Because at that point, I didn’t have any concept of a film that would deal with the Nazis, the Holocaust, and World War II. That was not the film I wanted to make in any way. It took me time to understand that that was a turning point in the film: Only then did I begin to ask, to read, to investigate, and to delve into the subject, and suddenly everything began to be very interesting.”
As it turned out, the two couples frequently socialized and took vacations together before the Tuchlers left Germany to immigrate to Palestine in the mid-1930s. What is shocking to Goldfinger was that his grandparents renewed ties with the Mildensteins after World War II.
His mother is unhelpful in providing an explanation. Her parents’ generation “didn’t offer and children didn’t ask questions,” she tells him. As Goldfinger continues to pound away during the course of the film, her discomfort and denial is almost palpable.
Goldfinger searches for answers elsewhere, eventually finding the Mildensteins’ daughter, Edda, who still lives in Germany. She welcomes him to her home, anxious to exchange information about their parents.
But something continues to gnaw. Goldfinger seeks more about Leopold to ascertain what role, if any, he had during the Holocaust. Many sources indicate, contrary to his mother’s indifference and Edda’s assertions, that he was a high-ranking official in the propaganda department and, in fact, may have been Adolf Eichmann’s first boss.
Despite their initial friendly encounters, he confronts Edda with documentation written in her father’s own hand that he was indeed a member of the SS. Her face twitches as he reads the contents while she scans a photocopy of the file he discovered among the now-declassified contents of the archives.
The Flat won best documentary at the 2012 Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival, as well as several other nominations and awards. Goldfinger — who served as director, producer, and writer for the project — is the recipient of two Israeli Academy Awards.