The Flat opens on the Tel Aviv apartment of filmmaker Arnon Goldfinger’s late grandmother. Everything is exactly how she left it before she died: portraits of herself and Arnon’s grandfather hang on the walls, tattered boxes of white gloves, peculiar furs, shoes, and other oddities hide away in the closets. Arnon and his mother (who accompanies him on most of the film’s voyages), among other Goldfingers, unearth old invoice after invoice until something suddenly catches their eyes: an old Nazi propaganda paper entitled “A Nazi Travels to Palestine,” published in a German 1930s fascist newspaper.
Arnon is shocked. What is Nazi propaganda doing in his late grandmother’s apartment? The Flat concerns itself with finding the solution to this puzzle. Arnon takes us on a journey of self-discovery, secret-revealing, and past-probing that ends with an astonishing revelation that is all the more juicy because it is entirely based on fact.
In the 1930s, Mr. Goldfinger’s grandparents, living in Germany, visited Palestine with a German couple, the Von Mildensteins. At the time, Baron Von Mildenstein was a journalist—he was the eventual ‘Nazi’ in the paper the Goldfingers discover—and was in Palestine to write his report. Before Nazis were Nazis, the National Socialist Party endeavored to make Palestine an appealing place for the Jews. Propaganda like Von Mildenstein’s piece was not entirely uncommon.
The two couples forged a friendship on the trip. Just before the war, however, Arnon’s grandparents emigrated to Palestine and lost contact with Baron Von Mildenstein, who reportedly travelled the world the four subsequent years to escape his SS responsibilities. What’s puzzling, however, is that the two couples continued their correspondence and in fact rekindled their friendship after the war was over. The question of why a Jewish couple, expelled from their homeland due to persecution, would continue to have a relationship with a Nazi is at the foundation of Goldfinger’s confusion.
The Flat is Goldfinger’s first project fully written and directed by himself. The documentary initially screened at the Jerusalem Film Festival in July of last year where Goldfinger took home the award for Best Director of a Documentary. The Flat became the must-see film of the festival, and ten minutes into viewing this film, it is clear why.
Goldfinger shoots The Flat in the same way he acts in it, starkly and directly, with a gentle distance and sobriety. In the labyrinthine series of events that takes us from Tel Aviv to Germany, Mr. Goldfinger relentlessly but softly asks the difficult questions that need to be asked, trudging through Von Mildenstein’s past until a gruesome truth is finally revealed. The images shown are ordinary: living rooms, backyards. Places familiar in their unremarkableness. What renders the scenery something of note is the powerful presence of the past that one can sense in every room.
Arnon travels around Germany, meeting with scholars and professors who shed light on what might have fueled Arnon’s grandparents’ desire to continue a friendship with the Von Mildensteins, as well as distant Goldfinger relatives. Finally, he meets with Von Mildenstein’s daughter, a lovely but gaurded older woman who, like everyone else Arnon has spoken to, believes that her father had been abroad during the war. The Flat’s most harrowing moment comes as Arnon searches through a German historical archive to discover the truth about what Von Mildenstein was actually doing during the Holocaust. I won’t spoil it, but suffice it to say that it isn’t vactioning. When Arnon reveals the truth to Von Mildenstein’s daughter, her reaction, understandably, is denial and disbelief.
Like so many of the forays we take into our family histories, uncertainty and cloudiness abound. The Flat‘s resolve is sublime and perfectly apropos of this. In the penultimate scene, Arnon and his mother search for his great-grandmother’s grave (Arnon’s mother’s grandmother) in an overgrown and disorienting German cemetery. Surprising to both of them, they are unable to find her tombstone. But it’s there nonetheless, under the darkness, the confusion, the secrets, and the pain.
The Flat opens in select theatres in the Greater Boston area on November 16, and is available now on IFC On Demand.
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