In this powerful gem of a documentary, an Israeli filmmaker gently dismantles the past, revealing a hidden link to layers and layers of heretofore unknown family history.
When Israeli filmmaker Arnon Goldfinger’s grandmother Gerda Tuchler passed away at the age of 98, his extended family gathered at the Tel Aviv flat where she had lived for 70 years. Together, they began the task of dismantling a life well lived, sorting through solid furniture, fox furs, vintage photographs, and boxes of correspondence. Because Goldfinger is a filmmaker, he picked up a camera and started to document the process, for a film aptly named The Flat.
Gerda Tuchler and her husband emigrated to Israel in the 1930s, escaping the fate that befell so many European Jews in the decade to come. As a child, Goldfinger—and the rest of his family—did not believe they had a direct connection to the horrors of the Holocaust. Without giving too much away (the filmmaker prefers that viewers experience the movie without too much background), they soon found out there was much that had been kept from them.
What Goldfinger and his family uncovered is a story with many layers, one that raises sometimes painful questions and sparks reluctant conversations—about family, history, religion, denial, and protecting the ones we love. In the film, Arnon and his mother travel to Germany, befriending a noble couple with whom they (surprisingly) share a history, but who choose to remember and understand that history in a different way, one that seemingly better suits their own life narrative.
The Flat—which has won many awards, including the Best Editing Award at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival—is the sort of film that unfolds in intimate ways, telling a personal, specific story that ultimately reflects the universal human experience. It’s a must-see.
Tribeca: How did your story come to be? At the start, was it really just about cleaning out the apartment, and what you might find? When did you realize what you had?
Arnon Goldfinger: After my grandmother passed away, I felt the urge to take my camera to her flat. I knew this flat from my childhood in Tel Aviv. Going to this flat was like going abroad; there was a real feeling of traveling across Tel Aviv and ending up in Berlin.
We shot for two months without knowing where it would go. And to be honest, after we found the documents [that started the journey], it took me a while to understand how much it contained. At first I thought it was an interesting anecdote… So [the discovery] really unfolded step by step.
Tribeca: Your mother and her generation react to the Holocaust very differently from your generation, at least in this portrait. At first, she wanted to read every line of every letter she found, but then once this story popped up, she kind of said, “Never mind.” You characterize your mother’s stance as, “What’s important is the here and now.” Was that always the way she was?
Arnon Goldfinger: It’s very strange to make a movie with people you know so well. It might sound strange, but for me it was really the first time I ever really sat with my mother and talked about subjects like this. In the end, you cut it into two-minute scenes, but in reality we had long conversations. It was an opportunity to realize her way of thinking, her psychology.
When I look at the characters in this film—my grandparents, [the Germans], my mother—I think what motivates them is sometimes unconscious. My mother says what she says [about not wanting to know], but in the end, she joined me; she decided to enter this journey. So on the one hand, she says, and I believe her, “I did it only because you are my son, and I love you, and I want you to be successful in what you are interested in.” But on the other hand, I believe, in her inner self, everyone is curious to learn about their past, their family history, even if it’s unconscious.
One of the things that really shocked me during the making of the film was that I grew up in a family where everyone knew our connection to Germany. It was not a secret; every year my grandparents took a plane to Germany. But what’s crazy about it is that even when I started to shoot in the flat, I didn’t think I was going to make a film with any connection with the Holocaust, because I personally had no connection to the Holocaust!
Tribeca: So when you were learning about the Holocaust as a child, you saw it as separate from your life?
Arnon Goldfinger: I think it’s more than thinking, because if I had been thinking about it, I would have been asking the right questions. I think it says more about the hidden power of denial. It’s not something I asked about, and had people tell me “No”—there are families like that, where the parents do not want to talk about it—but we didn’t even think of asking the questions.
Nowadays, my mother sees what kinds of questions my kids ask me, and she can’t stand it. [laughs] There are no boundaries.
Tribeca: Without giving too much away, you meet with this German couple, Edda and Harald. They are warm and welcoming, and it’s fascinating to watch you be diplomatic and gradually ease into talking about what you’ve uncovered. But your shared history is quite painful, on both sides. How did you handle that?
Arnon Goldfinger: The meeting with them raised lots of ambivalence within me, because, first of all, they are very kind people, and they were very welcoming. Suddenly, someone from Israel they‘ve never heard about is calling them, asking to film them, and they agree. They even—and I am not exaggerating—they were happy I came; I felt it. They opened their house, they never said, “Oh no, you again, with the camera.” And even if they thought that, they did not let on.
On the other hand, I knew so many things that were problematic about her father, and with what she was telling me. The first time I met her, after our phone conversations, I expected we would put everything on the table and discuss it. But when I heard her version, and it was completely different from what I thought, I questioned what I should do. I was prepared for another conversation.
I am a German Jew, so what you call diplomatic is really a portrait of how we—look, it’s not like we were detectives with a strategy. It was our real life happening. Maybe if this film was happening in another culture, it would have been different—there are people, even in Israel, who ask me why I didn’t do things differently—but I am not that kind of a guy. That also reflects the connection between my grandparents and Edda’s parents; they had the German codes of what you say, what you don’t say. You don’t embarrass the other side; it’s manners.
So it was a very gentle dance, and it stays like this today.
Tribeca: Has Edda seen the film?
Arnon Goldfinger: She has seen the film. I showed it to her right after it premiered at Tribeca. The film was also in general release in Germany, and there were reviews and interviews, so she also saw it in the cinema.
I’ll tell you what she told me; I think it’s very precise. She said, “There are some hard moments in this film for me. You would understand that, of course. But I understand why you decided to put it in the film, in order to tell your story.” So I think that was her way of saying, “This is your story.” On the other hand, she greenlit the film. She’s a noble person, and I am thankful for her; without her there would be no film.
Tribeca: Do you think that Edda consciously knows that what you’re saying about her father is true? Or do you think she’s buried it, and that’s her coping mechanism for going on with her life? And do you think that’s a metaphor for Germany as a whole? That as a country, they needed to move on, so they had to find a way to live with it?
Arnon Goldfinger: [In early] screenings, I changed my mind about Edda almost every time. And I think it’s authentic, because both audiences and the crew have had very different reactions.
I think it’s impossible that she didn’t know more than what she is saying now, but she may not have known all of it. I think that was a life decision she made—I don’t think she did research and then hid it; that’s for sure—and I don’t think she’s a liar. You must understand, that for a daughter to protect her father’s image is natural; Freud built a whole career around it.
I am not a psychologist of the German nation. In 1968, the same time as the student revolutions throughout Europe, there was a big movement in Germany where the younger generation accused their parents of being part of the Nazi regime. And later on, it developed into all these extremes—Baader-Meinhof and all this terrorism. And for my producer, it was very important that we explain that Edda was out of Germany for 30 years, beginning in 1968. (It had something to do with the work of her husband, but I don’t really believe that people leave their country for 30 years for only business reasons.) So my producer thought that this explained her behavior [of denial], but I’m not sure about it.
When WWII ended, the Cold War started, and the interest of the western world was not to completely break Germany. So all those Nazis who had been controlling the country now had the power to rebuild it. I think there were many of them who just continued their life in society; it’s a very known fact.
Tribeca: Another layer I find fascinating about your film is how much what we save says about our lives and our legacy, and how that is all disappearing. We no longer have letters or pictures—they are all digital—I rarely print photographs anymore, and all my “letters” are in my Gmail. Did working on this film make you think about your own legacy and what you will leave for your children?
Arnon Goldfinger: I think you point out maybe the most important thing about how I see my film. Yes, there is this story with the Holocaust, the Jewish history, the Germans. But basically, it’s a universal story, because the film deals with many questions: Is the history of your family important? How does it reflect your identity? What do you know about your parents? Does your life need to be connected to your past? These are all questions that I think most people need to deal with. Most of us are just running along with our life, but when we stop… for people who see this film, it reflects those thoughts in themselves.
I think [cleaning out the flat] is a modern experience. Let’s say, 100 years ago, I’m not sure how many people had to empty out their relatives’ homes; they just stayed in the same house, because they lived there. Nowadays, almost everyone, at least once in their life, somehow, has to deal with this experience.
Tribeca: It made me think about my own grandmothers—when they died, the family gathered, and the women divided up the jewelry, and everyone took mementos…
Arnon Goldfinger: Yes, yes. People don’t think about it that way—they think it will be technical, and bureaucratic, but it turns out to be a very emotional, moving experience. It’s usually after someone has died, so it’s special, and you go through pictures and memories. Many people who saw the film wrote me about their own experiences. So while I think my film is about a very specific experience, it also contains very universal emotions.