The Flat

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Flat
"This story of friendship between a Jewish couple and the tabloid journalist who rose to the top of Hitler's propaganda ministry has implications that echo down the generations, at once shocking and mundane."

Cleaning out the former home of a deceased loved one is difficult in the best of circumstances. It's harder for documentarian Arnon Goldfinger because, as an Israeli, he lives in a place which is still in the process of inventing itself, where everything is new, and his grandparents' flat contains the European clutter that is his only personal anchor to history. In the process, he makes a discovery which complicates that history and reveals a hidden side to the origins of Israel itself. It marks the beginning of a journey that will call reputations, confidences, and even memories into question.

Flmmakers like Edgar Reitz, Michael Verhoeven and Michael Haneke have focused their musings about the origins of the Holocaust not on its obvious monsters but on ordinary people who lived their lives around the edges of atrocities without taking in, or without acknowledging, what was happening. Goldfinger's story takes that a step further - now we are looking not just at Germans who quietly looked the other way, but at Jews who did so, even as members of their own families were persecuted, and even after they were safely in Tel Aviv. This story of friendship between a Jewish couple and the tabloid journalist who rose to the top of Hitler's propaganda ministry has implications that echo down the generations, at once shocking and mundane.

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Why do third generation Israeli Germans ask questions? Second generation ones never did. So says an old friend of Goldfinger's grandmother. He doesn't understand, she says, and she's glad about that. We see him laughing with his sibling as they drape themselves with fox fur stoles they've found in the flat. "Maybe it was alive when she put it on and it died some time later!" Gerda looks down from the portrait on the wall. There, and in the photographs, she is always elegant, like the Nazi woman at her side. Something tells us she would have found it impossible to understand herself as a second-class citizen. Her friend's husband sold her the idea that she wasn't being exiled. Zionism was about living the dream, he said. We see photographs of early settlers tilling the land that resemble that other, familiar propaganda. There was a time when, as Hitler's regime saw it, the creation of Israel could solve everybody's problems.

Perhaps Goldfinger's mother does understand. Though apparently happy to talk on camera and even to accompany him on a trip to Germany, she approaches the subject with a reticence that he never directly probes. At one point she refers to life with her parents as having been a burden. She feels no connection with her own lost grandmother, at first insisting old letters can't really be from her. Her distance implies that she has experienced trauma herself, even if it was distant, a second hand horror; and her concern for politeness over openness mirrors that same old tendency to look away. We see it again in the old Nazi's daughter, a friendly woman who has perhaps preserved herself through a form of cognitive dissonance. Of course, we never know exactly what the parents told their children, or if they might have lied to try and keep the horror from being passed along, or what the legacy of such lies might have been.

Framed within a simple narrative that carries us through the emptying of the flat and Goldfinger's search for answers, these unravelling secrets and the questions they raise suggest that pledging never to forget will always be easier for those with nothing direct to remember. Yet is also offers a curious kind of hope. If, in the end, friendship can survive even in the face of genocide, might there be hope for ending other conflicts? Might we dream, one day, of seeing a whole world full of people who don't understand?

Reviewed on: 21 Nov 2012
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The Flat packshot
An Israeli man cleaning out his grandmother's flat makes a strange discovery that leads him to uncover a secret history.
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Director: Arnon Goldfinger

Writer: Arnon Goldfinger

Starring: Arnon Goldfinger

Year: 2011

Runtime: 119 minutes

Country: Israel

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Tribeca 2012

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