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‘The Flat’: A journey across time and place, Israel and Germany

Click photo to download. Caption: Figurines in the residence that is the subject of Arnon Goldfinger's film, "HaDira" ("The Flat"). Credit: Tribeca Film Festival.
Click photo to download. Caption: Figurines in the residence that is the subject of Arnon Goldfinger's film, "HaDira" ("The Flat"). Credit: Tribeca Film Festival.

The premise of “HaDira” (“The Flat”) appears simple: an elderly grandmother has died and her apartment must be emptied of the relics of a lifetime.

As he filmed what was initially intended to simply create a record of his grandmother’s home and lifestyle, director and narrator Arnon Goldfinger began “to uncover…things that were a bit disquieting…[that] did not cease to transform and surprise me.”

In the resulting documentary—which won Best Editing in a Documentary Feature at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival—the secrets revealed stimulate a convoluted journey into Goldfinger’s family’s history and the discovery of what he calls “a reality that is often chaotic and unexpected.”

Despite 70 years of living in Israel, recounts Goldfinger, his grandparents, Gerda and Kurt Tuchler, in heart really never left Berlin. Though geographically in Tel Aviv, the Bauhaus-style flat “except for the view from the windows, could have been located on a street in pre-war Berlin,” says Goldfinger.

The residence mirrored the left-behind lifestyle of the then-young couple, who ran to escape the growing Nazi threat and were most reluctant to abandon Berlin. The home they established was a virtual memorial to the life they had lived—and loved—in pre-Nazi Germany.

Goldfinger begins his recollection speaking of childhood memories of crossing Tel Aviv for weekly visits to his maternal grandmother’s “flat.” Conversations were in English— she never became comfortable in Hebrew, and he refused to speak German. As the camera’s eye alights on one point of memory after another—a book, a ceramictoy, a childhood picture—the viewer can imagine the conversations during that brief post- World War I moment of civility and enlightenment in Germany.

Fast forward: each relative has selected mementos, and Goldfinger’s mother is tasked with emptying the apartment. The filmmaker joins her to help complete the job and is fascinated by what he finds. The cleanout has revealed the hidden life of his “immigrant” grandparents, documented through bits of information—an exchange of letters, personal records, hints of a past life closeted, literally, for almost 70 years.

What he finds, says Goldfinger, “hints at a mysterious and painful past, revealing relationships that desperately tried to overcome politics,” and detailing “emotional intrigue [and] denial.”

The documents and letters detail a long and complex friendship between his grandparents and Leopold von Mildenstein (a key figure in Joseph Goebbels’s Ministry of Propaganda who was tried and convicted for Nazi crimes after the war), and his wife. Their friendship, he says, was one “that crosses enemy lines,” creating virtually universal guilt and denial, and revealing “deeply repressed family emotions.” For decades, each family sought to ignore realpolitik, attempting to separate personal friendship from the conflagration exploding around them.

For the German, the Tuchlers were friends with whom he and his wife shared music, culture, and intellectual fraternity. Perhaps this association enabled him to view himself with a veneer of civility—even if only in his own mind. After all, these Jews were his intellectual companions; these were “his Jews.” For the Tuchlers—safely out of Germany, away from the threats of the Nazi regime, and ensconced in Tel Aviv’s “German Colony”—denial of reality, even in the face of facts and history, was their protective mechanism.

Goldfinger’s discoveries and the journey they provoke engender more questions: What is the importance of knowing one’s family history? Is that knowledge just a heavy and unnecessary burden? Once the openings that reveal his family’s past are breached, each fistula is widened—leading to a journey across continents, time, emotions, and generations, until those openings are pushed fully ajar.

To learn more about the newly discovered family mysteries, he and his mother travel to Berlin, a city significantly altered in appearance, yet still deeply connected to its roots. It is a city whose history is visible in its very stones, evidenced by memorial plaques installed in its reconstructed and refurbished sidewalks.

“HaDira” explores differences in attitudes and beliefs between generations from the Israeli perspective. The third—and now, the fourth—generation is asking questions its parents never asked, and its grandparents never answered. “Hadira” follows mother and son, members of the “second” and “third” generations, examining how each processes the same information, each according to individual experience and reflection.

Their responses can be seen as a microcosm of the continuing complexity of the relationships between Israel and Germany. As the story of the friendship between his grandparents and von Mildenstein unfolds, each family must deal with the information that surfaces. The re-established connections and shared information bring into question the assumptions and “facts” on which the family has structured its history. The altered reality that replaced historical facts is exposed. Truth is not easily found, and must be ferreted out, step by step. For many other discoveries, the inability to find common ground leads to conflict.

Israeli documentary film is maturing. Goldfinger has combined the existence, impressions and actuality of three generations, viewing reality through the eyes of each. Questions reach across the screen, as the viewer shares his quest. This reviewer found one sequence especially chilling: the thoroughness with which the mature, adult children of the Nazi officer have buried reality, presenting themselves as unaware of the horrors of the Nazi killing machine, and their refusal to acknowledge the part their father played to keep that engine running, gives rise to fears of the ease with which history can repeat.

Says Goldfinger: “I view every film as a commitment to undertake a long journey…to leave no stone unturned, and sometimes to even dig deeper into the mine.”

“Hadira” (“The Flat”): 2011; 97 minutes; Hebrew and German, with English subtitles; Directed and produced by Arnon Goldfinger

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