o child… We do not know what her fate has been’

Three Minutes: A Lengthening

They want to be seen, the people in the 1938 film. Perhaps not necessarily by us, so many decades later. But that’s what it feels like when they look straight at you. All those children too, who happily jostle in front of the camera, ignorant of the horrors that hung over their heads as Polish Jews.

Thoughts tumbled when Bianca Stigter (57) was just scrolling through Facebook one night and came across a post about amateur recordings from Nasielsk, which could be seen on the website of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC. Three and a half minutes, the only surviving record. footage of the Jewish community in the Polish town wiped out during World War II. Moving image, in color too; the inhabitants’ faces are so much less congealed in time than in the much more common black-and-white images.

What, the Dutch historian and journalist thought, if you could somehow stretch those images? ‘So that you can keep the past in our present just a little longer,’ says Stigter, on a terrace in her hometown of Amsterdam.

Bianca Stigter Statue Getty

Bianca StigterImage Getty

The film website IMDB has already listed her as one of the producers of the Oscar-winning Best Picture 12 Years a Slave† It was she who found the filmed memoir of the kidnapped and enslaved Solomon Northup, on which her husband, director Steve McQueen, based his 2013 historical drama. But she herself had never made a film before.

‘Man Ray always said: you look for the medium that best fits an idea. Anyway, I wasn’t a filmmaker. My idea for the documentary Three Minutes: A Lengthening was more of a loose thought. And perhaps it would have remained with that loose thought, had I not been asked to participate in the Critic’s Choice program of the International Film Festival Rotterdam (for which the journalists Jan Pieter Ekker and Dana Linssen invite critics to make video essays about films, red.† The festival was already a month later, so it became a short version of twenty minutes. Then I thought: maybe I can make it longer and more interesting. So I worked on it for another four years.’

Three Minutes: A Lengthening Image

Three Minutes: A Lengthening

The reels of film, tarnished by time and clumped together, almost beyond saving, were found in 2009 by writer Glenn Kurtz, in a closet in his parents’ house in Florida. Recordings of his grandfather David, who went on holiday through Europe a year before the outbreak of the Second World War with his wife, in order to briefly visit the Polish town that he as 4 year-old had left when his Jewish parents emigrated to the US. David, a successful businessman in Brooklyn, had bought a brand new movie camera especially for the trip. He is not an experienced film-maker: with the lens pointed upwards, on the shop fronts and facades along the Nasielsk square, and on the carved doors of the later destroyed synagogue, he hopes to keep the dispersed crowd somewhat out of the picture, which makes him (fortunately ) hardly succeeds.

Kurtz wrote a book about the film, published in the Netherlands with the title Three minutes in Poland (Ambo Anthos, 2015), for which he searched for the few Jewish residents of Nasielsk who had survived the Holocaust. He found a handful, one of whom can also be seen in his grandfather’s images as a child. The latter bear witness to an erased community.

Stigter takes that quest further in her documentary, for which she sifts through the restored 16mm images by freezing and slowing down images, and zooming in on all kinds of details. Selected for last year’s Venice festival, the film chronicles and contextualizes everything: the clothing and the associated social class, the number of unique faces that pass in the three and a half minutes (more than a hundred), and the one lion of Judah already missing from the gate of the synagogue – forcibly removed in an earlier pogrom, a harbinger of the later abominations.

Three Minutes: A Lengthening Image

Three Minutes: A Lengthening

How many times have you seen the original video?

‘A few thousand times, I think. I first wanted to know who all those people are, or what their names are. But almost everyone who could know that has been murdered, or has since died of old age. Glenn had already found out a lot of information for his book, I build on his work. And I tried to find out even more about what we’re seeing. Then I saw a plant in a window frame, with a flower, and I called the Hortus to find out which flower that could be. Spent days on it, didn’t work. I also got to work with a lip reader, who understood Yiddish and Polish, to find out what the people talking in the picture were saying. Didn’t work either: the images are too vague or too short.’

Still, Stigter succeeds in bringing those residents of Nasielsk just that little bit closer, tinkering with the fraying of the historical material.

Were there any faces that immediately caught your eye?

‘Yes, that girl with short hair, bangs. Few girls wore their hair like that, she’s the only one in the video. And she really wants to stay in the picture, but is pushed away a bit. If you pay close attention, you will see her appear on several occasions. And when you see that little face, you think: oh child… We don’t know what her fate was, impossible to find out.’

You spoke to one more survivor, Maurice Chandler. How was that?

“He’s 97 now. I visited him with Glenn Kurtz in Detroit, where he lives. I had to overcome some trepidation: you ask someone about a traumatic experience. But he also liked to tell. He is the only one of his family to survive the war, the whole world of his childhood was gone. That three-minute video finally allowed him to show something to his own children and grandchildren: Now you know I’m not from Mars, he told them. According to Chandler, everyone you see in the video is Jewish. He could also point out the hierarchy, by means of hats and types of caps of the boys, who may or may not be religious. And he also knew some names of boys you see. Not the girls. ‘As a child I wasn’t allowed to look at girls,’ he says about it.’

Stigter, working as a journalist for NRCpreviously wrote to her for years Atlas of an occupied city, a richly illustrated guide to the many Amsterdam addresses that had been important during the German occupation. Her 2019 book now serves as the basis for a new documentary by Steve McQueen, Occupied City

In your documentary, Steve is one of the producers. What was his share?

‘Sounding board. That’s what we are each other, always back and forth.’

Have you ever been on set with him?

‘Not often. I’ve been to 12 Years a Slave, but there is not much to do on a film set. It’s pretty boring, lots of waiting. And actually you are mostly in the way. Steve is filming now Occupied CityI’ll be there when they do something really exciting. We also talk about it all the time, which is great fun: sharpening each other up.’

Looking attentively, as in Three Minutes: A Lengtheningalso seems connected to your father’s poetry (Gerard Stigter, aka K. Schippers, red.† Was that something he actively taught you and your sister?

“Well, he wasn’t going to teach us. We never thought: there you have him again with his eyes. It was more casual that you could see something sparkling through his look. He has Three Minutes I can still see it, I’m very happy about that. He passed away shortly before the premiere in Venice, in August. My father immediately found the idea for the film very interesting. Go do it, he said. Go see if it works.’

Debut Documentary

Three Minutes: A Lengthening, the debut documentary by historian and NRC journalist Bianca Stigter, had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival in 2021, in the program ‘Giornate degli Autori’. After that, the film traveled to various festivals, including Idfa and Sundance.

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