A shaky holiday movie from the summer of 1938 shows a square with cobblestones. Momentarily. In the documentary Three Minutes – A Lengthening the statue stops there, at that square. The stones slowly emerge as a male voice in a calm reading tone begins to tell about the fate of the Jews of Nasielsk, a small town of about 7,000 inhabitants 50 kilometers north of the capital Warsaw.
September 1939, the German army invades Poland. In December that year, all the Jews of Nasielsk, about three thousand in total, must gather in the square. Many of the town’s Catholics, some 4,000 in all, turned out to watch. Some laugh. German soldiers chase the Jews to the train station four kilometers away. With lashes they force them to run and sing.
None of this can be seen. Bianca Stigter, NRCeditor and director of the documentary: “Because I knew that the people were herded together in the square and because there is an image of the square, I zoomed in on it. Stopped by the place.”
Glenn Kurtz found the shaky 16mm film 13 years ago in an attic in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. The film was shot by his grandfather, during a European trip with his wife. Kurtz immediately understood the value of the three minutes in Poland, the country his grandfather David Kurtz had left at the age of four. On display is a vibrant community of Polish Jews, delighted by the strange visit from America with a fascinating device, a film camera.
The grandson went to investigate. He found the town, some of the survivors and more. He wrote the book about his search Three Minutes in Poland: Discovering a Lost World in a 1938 Family Film (2014). A Dutch translation appeared a year later.
Stigter came across an announcement of the book via Facebook. “After that I watched the video on the website of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and my first thought was: how nice it would be if you could see those people longer, precisely because you know how it ends for them. And because the video is so direct. It brings you very close, partly because it is largely in color. That’s unexpected. The world before 1950 is black and white, we are conditioned that way. Color wakes you up. You can already see yourself walking there as a child.”
Stigter started working on the film, not as a writer, but as a filmmaker. She first made a 23-minute film essay in 2015 for the Rotterdam Film Festival. A few years later came the documentary: 69 minutes with only images from that one film. Sometimes played in slow motion, then enlarged, sped up, run through a cleaner; but always the same stuff, shot by Grandpa Kurtz. Subtitle: a lengthening†
Is your film debut the start of a new genre?
“I can’t say because then I would have to be sure it’s never been done before. Not as far as I know. You could apply the process to other films, but of course I won’t. You do something like this once, to see if it works. It’s an experiment.”
But not only that, right?
“No, it’s also a way to do justice to the lives of the people you see. A form of remembrance. I slow down the image as an attempt to avoid erasure. As long as we look, history is not over.
“We are watching an amateur’s video. I think that’s important, it derives a lot of strength from that. So you occasionally see Kurtz’s walking stick in the picture, by accident. You see that he tries to film the houses behind that cheerful crowd, but gives up. Not to be: the children are crowding in front of his camera. They want to be seen. This is pure non-fiction, with no intention, no pretense, nothing artistic about it. That is precisely what creates an authentic feeling: suddenly you get a glimpse of a past that has been lost. That is fascinating for a historian. Often there is an art filter between you and the past. You can say: Rembrandt made very similar portraits. And yet, how do we actually know? With such a portrait of Oopjen you think: that must be realistic. But maybe it was a flattering image too! Was she even less appetizing in real life.”
three minutes is except memorial a detective. Stigter searches for what we see. The synagogue of course, a restaurant, children who like to be in the picture, citizens who quietly look into the lens. But is there more?
“The luck was that Glenn Kurtz had already done a lot of research. But you can say a lot more about that in a book than in a movie. I therefore chose to mainly tell things that have a link with images from the film. So you don’t hear about the post-war lives of the survivors, for example, but about the buttons on the jackets and dresses that gave me the opportunity to tell the story of the button factory in Nasielsk. You hear all about the lime trees on the square and about the research I conducted into the name above the grocery store. I even enlisted a lip reader who knows Yiddish from that time and place. But the images of talking mouths were too short and vague to read. I couldn’t figure out the name of a plant either. I wrote to a botanist, other experts, but no, although it was clearly a red flower, the image didn’t provide enough information to determine which plant. Basically, I tried to extract as much information as possible from the celluloid. It is good to recognize that much was not to be found. That also says something about what happened. An entire culture has been murdered. The name of only a few people in the video can therefore be retrieved. It is no different with those famous photos of the raid on the Waterlooplein here in Amsterdam in 1941. We can’t identify everyone on that either, because many of the people who could have told the names were also murdered. That shows the scale of the destruction and also makes this movie so special for someone like Maurice Chandler, the survivor you hear about. His granddaughter saw the video on the site of the Holocaust museum in Washington and recognized her grandfather immediately, by his mischievous cheeks. After Chandler saw himself, his first reaction, with his family around him, was: now you know I’m not from Mars.
You want to shout, ‘Go away! Flight!
“Our knowledge of what is going to happen puts enormous pressure on the images. You want to shout, ‘Go away! Flight!’ This means that this film has a kind of reverse effect of one of the very first films ever, by the Lumière brothers. Then, it seems, the viewers turned away from the train they saw moving toward them. Here we want to shout at the people on the celluloid that they must flee. But they can’t hear us. We can never bridge that distance, no matter how lively they seem in the film.
“The knowledge of history also meant that I was reluctant to edit the images. It was as if the film itself indicated: no, what you are trying now, that is going too far. At freaky† This feels disrespectful. As a result, I have stayed closer to the original than I first imagined.”
Read the review: ‘Three Minutes’ doesn’t commemorate names, but faces
Throughout the documentary, you were only allowed to use images from the three minutes of the holiday film. Have you never been tempted to break that rule?
“Often you have to adjust a plan along the way, but this time the first idea worked. The documentary shows what it can bring if you really focus on something. It’s a kind slow watching† The documentary starts by showing the three, almost four minutes found footage and ends with that too, but the second time you probably look at it very differently. And still: every time I see the holiday movie, I notice new details. Fortunately, it cannot be ruled out that new information is found somewhere, that a viewer still recognizes someone, for example.
“The only concession I have made is at the very end, in the credits. In the film you see Maurice Chandler as a boy of thirteen while you hear him as he is now. I’m very curious by nature myself, so I understand viewers’ desire to see him as he is now, at 97. So I decided to show a picture of him in the credits. To be consistent, I decided to include a photo of everyone involved in the film, of David and Glenn Kurtz, but also of composer Wilko Sterke and researcher Katarzyna Kacprzak, editor Katharina Wartena and narrator Helena Bonham Carter. In this way you can also say something about the different functioning of words and images, which is one of the underlying subjects of the documentary. Of most people from the found footage we only know the faces, not the names. That’s why towards the end of the documentary I had a kind of portrait gallery made of all the faces we could find in the film, however minor or out of focus, in order to recognize the people of the celluloid as the individuals that it had been, one by one. . Watching becomes remembering here.”
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of April 7, 2022