The Flat (Multiple Reviews)

Joseph Braverman (***)

Director Arnon Goldfinger’s intensely personal documentary, The Flat, is recognizably manipulative in parts yet successfully rides on a wave of tension constructed around a moment in time that, when seen in shades of grey, could completely alter your take on history.  Centered on Goldfinger’s feverish unraveling of a dark family secret that’s been kept under tight wraps for nearly six decades, The Flat winds up touching a nerve in a great deal of us – myself included – who either knew or were in some way related to the unfortunate victims of The Holocaust. What clinched my interest most was the way family and friends within the story reacted (equal parts receptive, hostile or simply unperturbed) to Goldfinger’s journey of peeling back the pages of his family’s history. Like Goldfinger, I too have yearned for complete knowledge of my genealogy, and never understood why anyone would be “disinterested” in knowing all there is to know about their own flesh and blood. While watching The Flat, I began to understand the ignorance in my thinking – perhaps the simple task of working back into the past to discover the truth about one’s family may severely hurt or emotionally cripple those who wish to put the past firmly behind them. In the case of the Goldfingers, such an escapade backwards threatens to fracture one of life’s most fundamental relationships: mother and son.

The Flat is what you’d call an “accidental documentary.” The film starts off as nothing more than a quick inspection of Arnon Goldfinger’s recently deceased grandmother’s flat in Tel Aviv. There, Arnon and his mother, Hannah, sort through Granny Goldfinger’s jewelry and belongings in a routine manner, but soon discover something that shakes Arnon to the core – evidence that his German-born Jewish grandparents remained friends with a high-positioned Nazi officer even after The Holocaust. To Arnon, it was as if the children of God and Satan became the best of friends in complete secrecy, for if anyone were to find out, it would shame both parties immensely (think: Shakespeare’s Capulets and Montagues). Obsessed with unearthing the reason behind this highly unconventional relationship, Arnon Goldfinger then brings two cinematographers, Talia Gukon and Phillipe Bellaiche (Gukon was the first DP before the documentary went into production), and Zero One Film (German-Israeli studio) on board his genealogical quest. Because this journey could lead to a deeper understanding of past German-Jew relations, The Flat soon becomes one of the hottest film projects in Eastern Europe, with Arnon’s hungry desire for the truth serving as the movie’s propeller.

Image Credit: David Baltzer/Sundance Selects.

Through investigative research, Arnon soon discovers that the Nazi whom his grandparents had great affinity for was actually higher up in the SS ranks — closer to the Kaiser — than he previously imagined. When Arnon and Hannah meet up with the daughter of the Nazi officer, Edda Milz von Mildenstein, The Flat takes a decidedly uncomfortable turn. Even though Arnon presents damning evidence after damning evidence – German newspaper clippings and SS roster information – to prove to Edda that her father was a down-and-out evil and irredeemable follower of Hitler, you cannot help but sympathize with Edda’s understandable denial of her father’s substantial role in Nazi-Germany. Arnon’s directing stumbles as he interrogates Edda as though she herself was responsible for the death of the Jews. Their interviews intentionally position Edda Mildenstein as a fool who lives in a fantasy world that’s not too dissimilar from the eggheads who believe that The Holocaust was nothing more than fabricated Western propaganda. Maybe Arnon wants to hold someone accountable for his grandparent’s seemingly-blasphemous friendship with a Nazi officer, but he winds up turning Edda into a victim instead of the historically ignorant culprit he intended to label her as. I’ve always believed that many of the Nazis in Hitler’s SS unit enrolled out of fear for their lives and their children’s lives. Heck, the entire German population probably thought that to even so much as smile at a Jew would, at the very least, mean economic ruin for their families. Arnon bases his anger solely on the documented word, but what he should have done is listen to Edda’s anecdotes about the kind of person her father was, and then perhaps a peaceful understanding – and maybe even forgiveness on his part – could be possible.

The Flat’s most unexpected twist is how Hannah responds to Arnon’s adventure into the past. The cinematographers do a marvelous job of capturing her expressions at every turn. The subtle grimaces and reluctant smirks Hannah displays throughout the film encapsulate the deep generational divide between the baby boomers and those that came before.  The older generations weren’t as interested in learning about their family history, because the only means to survive and thrive in those days was to move forward and never look back. Discussing the past was a reminder of how dark, unlivable and deplorable their childhoods were. Just like coming to America was the start of a new opportunity and livelihood for many immigrant families, Jews relocating into Palestine from Nazi-occupied Germany was their road to salivation. In reverse, because the baby boom generation, for the most part, had a better upbringing than their parents and grandparents – stable homes and greater access to education – there wasn’t this fear of diving back into the past and being psychologically traumatized. In fact, acquiring a surplus of information — both historical and contemporary — was a specialization of the baby boom generation (knowledge and intellect at this time was the form of ultimate power for the world’s youth), and thus it’s not surprising that each following generation becomes more and more fascinated by the past, specifically their surname’s own. For Hannah, who wasn’t indoctrinated with the importance of learning one’s familial history, Arnon’s journey is a boring one — a waste of time that makes Hannah feel as though she’s regressing in life by spending what little time she has left on this earth chasing ghost stories instead of quality time with her son, Arnon. By the end, in that final scene, you’ll understand just how much frustration Hannah keeps buried down. Powerful and incredibly telling, The Flat’s final moments are impeccable.

I’m not joking — this is one of the most uncomfortable scenes to watch in 2012 cinema. (Image Credit: Sundance Selects).

Overall, Arnon Goldfinger creates a spellbinding documentary that explores history in a refreshingly deconstructive way. What we thought we knew to be true could perhaps be more than just black and white words written in a textbook. The way Arnon executes his story, however, is troublesome and slightly cruel, especially the way Edda’s interviews are conducted. Maybe looking at his finished product, Goldfinger will notice the instances where a bit of grace and kindness could have gone a long way. Hannah, meanwhile, is perhaps the perfect subject to stand in for a generation that wishes to forget the past forever. The middle portion of The Flat is a bit slow, but there is more suspense surrounding Goldfinger’s quest to discover the truth about his grandparent’s dark secret than surrounds the most banal of action movie plots from this year. Being of Jewish descent, I was personally invested in Goldfinger’s journey, but even those who don’t share similar ethnic ties would still be completely moved and enthralled by The Flat. It’s rare that a film can dig deeper into a point of history that’s presumed to be entirely plundered. Low and behold, The Flat accomplishes this feat.

The Flat is being distrubted in America by Sundance Selects and IFC Films. The film releases today, October 19th, in New York City, with a national rollout to follow the October 24th Los Angeles debut. Despite a few fundamental issues I have with it, The Flat’s historical significance is too important to pass up. I definitely recommend that everyone finds time to see this when it comes to a theater near you!

Joey Magidson (**½)

There’s a rather interesting and endlessly fascinating story at the center of the documentary ‘The Flat’. For me though, there’s just not enough meat on its bones to justify it as a feature length story worth telling. Perhaps this would have worked better as a short? I’m not sure, but as a full length doc, it feels like something is missing. Director Arnon Goldfinger obviously finds this to be a deeply personal tale, for obvious reasons considering the fact that it concerns his family, but he’s too inconsistent in conveying that to the audience. Personal documentaries are tricky in that way, and Goldfinger too often seems disengaged when telling the story. Obviously there needs to be some balance, but the pendulum swung too far in the other direction for my tastes. Aside from this odd choice, the documentary is pretty interesting and gets into some issues that aren’t often seen, especially in Jewish themed documentaries like this one. The film opens this Friday in limited release and clearly wants to be positioned as a possible Oscar nominee for Best Documentary Feature. I think it’s about a step or two down from that level, but it’s likely going to be contender. I’m not quite recommending it, but the good does outweigh the bad, even if ever so slightly.

The story and subject for this documentary are set in motion when filmmaker Arnon Goldfinger’s grandmother passes away at the age of 98. Goldfinger and his relatives head to her Tel Aviv apartment to begin the process of cleaning it out and sorting through the belongings of the late woman, presumably expecting to find nothing really of any interest. That’s not the case though, as Goldfinger comes across something rather shocking. It seems that his German-Jewish grandparents, who both fled to Israel during the Holocaust, kept in contact with a high ranking Nazi named Leopold von Mildenstein, as seen through both letters and photographs. When Arnon reveals this to his immediate relatives, the reactions are diverse and all rather surprising to him. Thus does he set out to try and get to the bottom of what was going on. This investigation leads him to a relative of Mildenstein, the fact that Mildenstein had an unsual interest in Zionism, and overall a whole new way of looking at his family. There aren’t any real tremendous conclusions drawn by the end, but it is a particularly unusual story that Goldfinger stumbled upon right in his own backyard.

As a filmmaker, Arnon Goldfinger keeps things very simple, almost to the point of this documentary seeming more like a home movie than anything else. On the one hand, that gives it a strong sense of authenticity and a “you are there” perspective. In some way, you could feel like you’re one of Goldfinger’s kin, right there in the apartment learning this all as he does. On the other hand, however, it doesn’t make things particularly cinematic and the case could be made that the pacing is so slack that it torpedos the flick beyond saving. I’m caught somewhere in the middle, but in the end things feel just a bit too slight to full embrace. Goldfinger is digging into his family’s history, but besides a theory or two, he doesn’t really come up with much, and it’s a bit of a letdown for a viewer.

In terms of where it might stand in the Oscar race…well, the content is certainly up the Academy’s alley. The quality may not fully be there in my mind, but enough voters could certainly disagree. It 100% can’t win the Best Documentary Feature prize, but a nomination isn’t fully out of the question. It’s caught in the second tier of contenders, and I don’t know if it can rise to the top without far more recognition than its gotten previously. Time will tell, but the odds aren’t particularly in its favor.

‘The Flat’ is hardly a bad documentary, but it feels like an incomplete one. That led to just enough frustration on my part to hold off on that last half of a star and a recommendation from me. Arnon Goldfinger isn’t a strong enough filmmaker to keep you in the story without more to share, so this almost feels like part 1 of a longer series. On television this could play much better than in theaters, but right now I think it’s going to have a tough road ahead when it opens on Friday. Maybe I’m wrong and it’ll hit a nerve and do well, but I wouldn’t bank on it. There are things to like in ‘The Flat’, but just not enough to make it a success in my book. Give it a shot if the subject matter interests you, but be prepared to keep your expectations in check, lest you wind up leaving with a feeling of disappointment.

Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!