- Share this article on Facebook
- Share this article on Twitter
- Share this article on Email
- Show additional share options
- Share this article on Print
- Share this article on Comment
- Share this article on Whatsapp
- Share this article on Linkedin
- Share this article on Reddit
- Share this article on Pinit
- Share this article on Tumblr
In 1938 David Kurtz and his wife left Brooklyn to visit Europe, stopping in the small Polish town he had moved from with his family when he was only four. A year later that town’s 3,000 Jewish residents were deported, and most died in the Treblinka death camp. Only 100 survived. In Three Minutes — A Lengthening, Bianca Stigter turns a few minutes of amateurish film Kurtz shot on his trip — no more than an American tourist’s souvenir of a vacation — into an eloquent meditation on loss, memory and how film can shape them. The director’s statement says, “I wondered: Could you make those three minutes last longer, to keep the past in the present?” But she doesn’t really prolong time. Her real accomplishment is to reclaim a past that can live in new and different forms in our minds and onscreen.
The three-minute film, mostly black-and-white, is fragmented and replayed to provide the visuals in the 69-minute documentary, and is shown in its entirety at the start. It captures a cobblestoned main street, with people crowding in front of the movie camera, a novelty at the time. In another scene a throng of worshippers comes out of a synagogue. The women in town wear everyday cotton dresses and some men have newsboy caps. At first glance, they might be extras from Schindler’s List, in images that briefly highlight the obstacle Stigter smartly overcomes: how to avoid familiar tropes that may actually lessen the film’s impact.
Three Minutes – A Lengthening
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Venice Days)
Director: Bianca Stigter1 hour 9 minutes
Her solution is to create a narrative of discovery. David Kurtz’s grandson Glenn found the crumbling film in a closet in 2009. At first he was so uncertain of what he was looking at that he thought it was his grandmother’s hometown and not his grandfather’s, Nasielsk, north of Warsaw. Glenn Kurtz’s book Three Minutes in Poland: Discovering a Lost World in a 1938 Family Film inspired the documentary, which traces how he filled in the gaps. Helena Bonham Carter is the narrator, but Kurtz’s level voice recalling that process is even more prominent and important.
He donated the 16mm film to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which had it restored. Much of what we see is clean and clear, but some is still grainy and shadowy. As Kurtz points out, his grandfather was probably still learning to use the new camera. As young people jockey for position in front of the lens, some of their faces are so low in the frame that Kurtz guesses his grandfather was trying to aim above them to shoot the buildings across the street. The amateurish quality adds authenticity that Stigter wisely doesn’t interfere with. Throughout, Katharina Wartena’s graceful editing keeps the story moving, and Stigter zooms in or repeats segments so fluidly that the documentary never feels repetitive.
After the Holocaust Museum put the three minutes on its website, Kurtz received an email from a woman who recognized her grandfather, Maurice Chandler, who was 13 at the time, and who escaped on forged papers. In the documentary, Chandler’s mature voice describing images of himself as a boy creates a visceral, informative connection to the past. “These are the caps we wore, the yeshiva boys,” Chandler recalls. Those black caps set them above those in newsboy caps, yet the two classes are side by side on the street. Kurtz notes how the presence of the camera “scrambled the social hierarchy,” bringing together people who would not have been next to each other in everyday life.
Kurtz and Bonham Carter pose other questions about film, what it can preserve and how much we tend to read into it when answers are scarce. The theme adds a clear-eyed perspective, a bit of fresh scaffolding, but the documentary’s essence is in the town’s history and its fate. Intense close-ups of the fabric of the women’s dresses is shown under a voiceover that says Nasielsk’s button factory was taken over by the Nazis in 1939. An unnamed narrator reads from a written account of the Nazi takeover, when Jews were herded into the synagogue, whipped, then marched through the mud to trains that carried them to scattered ghettos and later to Treblinka.
Three Minutes is Stigter’s first feature-length film as a director, but she worked with Steve McQueen, her husband, as associate producer of his 12 Years a Slave, and obviously shares his sense that the brutal past should be looked at with fresh eyes. Her film lapses into cliche only once. Photographs of each person in the 1938 film fill the screen in a grid, appearing one by one. Instead of capturing their individuality, the image unintentionally resembles a page of headshots in a school yearbook, and also echoes many memorials from recent tragedies. But that is an unusual flaw in a beautiful film that pays tribute to those lost and to the persistence and emotional power of memory.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Venice Days)
Production company: Family Affair Films
Narrator: Helena Bonham Carter
Director-screenwriter: Bianca Stigter
Producer: Floor Onrust
Co-producer: Steve McQueen
Archival footage shot by: David Kurtz
Editor: Katharina Wartena
Music: Wilko Sterke
Sound designer: Mark Glynne
Visual effects: Thaumar Rep
Sales: Autlook Filmsales
Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day