A much heralded documentary, The Flat concerns the death of the Israeli filmmaker’s 98 year old grandmother in Tel-Aviv and the revelations unveiled by this event post-mortem. Gerda Tuchler was an elegant German-Jew, married to a judge and comfortable with their long-standing friendship with a prominent Nazi propaganda minister and his wife. The Tuchlers accompanied the von Mildensteins who traveled to Palestine in the thirties where the Baron hoped to find a suitable place to dump the Jews of Germany and Europe before the more cost-effective Final Solution was found. Arnon Goldfinger, the grandson and filmmaker, is entrusted with going through the old woman’s collection of German books and memorabilia, finding photographs of Gerda and her husband vacationing with the von Mildensteins before and after the holocaust and a particularly salient newspaper article titled “A Nazi in Palestine,” recording the aforementioned trip. Complicating this already sordid picture is the disclosure that Gerda’s mother, Susi, a German Jew who visited her family in Palestine but declined to relocate from her native home, was transported to the ghetto of Riga and eventually murdered in Theresinstadt.
This shocking mise-en-scene grows worse as we see Arnon’s mother Hannah, a woman in complete denial about any of these relationships and events and even less interested in learning about them, turn into a liar on-screen. When her son shows her a letter written by her grandmother who makes references to her as a child, she at first claims that she’s not even sure that it was written by Susi and then, that Susi might have been referring to another family member with the same name. But her attempt to deny that she knew her grandmother is soon belied by her own photo album showing a picture of her as a young child posing with her mother and grandmother. While at first our sympathies are drawn to the plight of children of survivors who were unable to ask questions of their silent and traumatized parents, we are now forced to come to a very different conclusion. Hannah, in fact, was not the daughter of survivors; she was the daughter of emigre Nazi sympathizers who continued to socialize with people who were directly implicated in her grandmother’s murder as well as those of 5,999,99 other Jews. Though Hannah is not responsible for her parents’ despicable behavior, her own moral blindness makes her a very unsympathetic character. Similarly, the filmmaker’s involvement with von Mildenstein’s daughter Edda and her husband shows the parallel refusal to face the truth in second generation Germans after the war. Edda, who at first insists that her father was away in Japan during the war, grows increasingly angry when the filmmaker shows her proof of her father’s important position taken from the testimony of the Eichman trial. We never see him confront his own mother with this proof of whom her parents were corresponding and vacationing with, always in Germany and Austria, for years after World War II. An attempt at explaining this with the theory that the Tuchlers needed and hoped to believe that there were still good Germans and that not all Jews were despised fails to rise above the level of insulting and risible psychobabble.
At the end of the movie, Arnon and his mother pay a visit to a cemetery in Germany where another family member is presumably buried. We see them carrying a flowering plant to place at the grave which is never found. Arnon is wearing a yarmulka so we get the feeling that he is a Jew who observes at least some traditions, yet something rings hollow. It is the fact that it’s customary for Jews to leave a stone which is a sign of permanence at a gravesite, not flowers which die and leave no trace. Thinking about the characters in the Tuchler family leaves me with sufficient distaste to hope that Jews as treacherous as the Judge and his beautifully dressed wife, and as willfully blind as their lying daughter are the kind of people who will also leave a dwindling imprint in the minds of others.
Though Arnon allows us to see these disturbing truths, he is strangely unwilling to confront his own absence of candor. I can only assume that there is more than a small degree of guilt that like Madeline Albright, Arnon Goldfinger never “knew” that his great-grandmother was murdered in a concentration camp. What was his excuse for never asking the questions and probing for answers that were so plainly logical given his family’s background? He went to his grandmother’s flat every week as he was growing up - and she lived there for 75 years - did it really have to wait until her death for a smart young Israeli to put at least some of the obvious pieces together? Or did that plot device just serve to make a more dramatic film, even if the sequence of who knew what when wasn’t exactly true? In a film purporting to be about finding, facing and owning up to the devastating truth, even a small hint of its distortion looms too large.
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