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Lost for decades, 3 minutes of pre-Holocaust life becomes a full-length documentary

NEW YORK — In 1938, David Kurtz, a Polish-born Jew who came to the United States as a child, took his wife on a “grand tour” of Europe. A successful businessman, he brought along with him a brand new movie camera.

In between typical stops like Paris and Rome, he visited Nasielsk, the small village where he had grown up. Nasielsk had a significant Jewish population (over 40 percent of the town) and a thriving community. The day he visited, people were out in full force, eager to show off due to the novelty of the camera.

Kurtz shot a little over three minutes of footage, trying to capture the buildings of his youth, but the people — fortunately, in retrospect — kept getting in his way. Then he packed up and went to his next destination. The film lingered in storage for decades, untouched.

What Kurtz never realized was that he captured one of the last moments of vibrant Jewish life in this part of the world. Months later, all of Nasielsk’s Jews were rounded up, sent to ghettoes and, eventually, extermination camps. Very few survived the war.

Decades later, Kurtz’s grandson, Glenn Kurtz, a New York-based author, found the film and had it restored. (And not a moment too soon. It was almost beyond repair.) He placed it with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and, eventually, a woman watched it on their website and recognized her grandfather. Over time, some of the faces thought lost to the ashes of history became clearer in view. Glenn Kurtz wrote a book about the experience, “Three Minutes in Poland: Discovering a Lost World in a 1938 Family Film.”

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One day, while poking around Facebook, Dutch critic and film producer Bianca Stigter learned the story. Her new film, “Three Minutes — A Lengthening” isn’t exactly an adaptation of Kurtz’s book about recovering lost history. It’s an examination of his examination.

With roots in the art world (her husband, Steve McQueen, is the Oscar-winning director of “12 Years a Slave” and also an accomplished visual artist), Stigter ignored the typical approach of documentary films. Though 70 minutes in length, 99.9% of what you see in “Three Minutes” are the three minutes. First it runs through unimpeded, then we see it backwards and forwards, halted, blown-up, re-filtered, cut apart and stretched out. The audio mixes interviews, primary sources, and narration written by Stigter — and voiced by Helena Bonham Carter — that’s part explanation, part philosophical rumination.

Beyond the historical and emotional resonance of the story, “Three Minutes — A Lengthening” is a fascinating analysis of the act of seeing. The film opens August 19 in New York and Los Angeles.

I had the good fortune to Zoom with Stigter, who was in Amsterdam. Our conversation has been edited for clarity.

Bianca Stigter, director of ‘Three Minutes – A Lengthening.’ (Courtesy/ Annaleen Louwes)

The Times of Israel: I came to this movie knowing very little, and after a few minutes I realized, wow, she’s really going for it — we are only going to see the “three minutes.” There will be a narrative presented in audio, but film is a visual medium, and this is restricting itself to some severe boundaries. Was that something you knew you would be doing from the beginning, or was this an “aha!” moment after you began working?

Bianca Stigter: It was the idea I started with, from when I first saw the footage that is still available on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website. I was mesmerized by it.

It’s fantastic we have the three minutes, but it’s over before you know it. So I wondered, “Wouldn’t it be great to keep this past in our present a little bit longer?” That was the starting off point of the whole project.

The hope is that you are traveling back in time to that place, but it can also create a memorial for the people.

It also has an immersive quality, too. Were there other projects you had in mind as a model?

The first time I recognized you could do something with film and time was seeing the work of British artist Douglas Gordon, and his “24 Hour Psycho” in the 1990s. All he did was play the movie “Psycho” in an art gallery, but he slowed it down so it took 24 hours to watch the whole thing. I think it’s a masterpiece.

There’s also the American surrealist film “Rose Hobart” [by Joseph Cornell, from 1936], where he cut up a movie leaving only the parts where this particular actress, Rose Hobart, was left in.

I don’t know how much these were direct inspirations, but they opened me up to think you can do things in a different way.

Children living in the predominantly Jewish village of Nasielsk, Poland, in 1938 as seen in Bianca Stigter’s ‘Three Minutes – A Lengthening.’ (Image courtesy of Family Affair Films, © US Holocaust Memorial Museum)

How much of the “24 Hour Psycho” did you actually watch in the gallery?

I went twice for 30-minute stretches.

I wonder if the gallery got super busy right when the shower scene happened?

It’s possible.

Your movie takes the viewer through multiple logical steps. And, obviously, it’s a tragic and upsetting movie, but there are stretches that are fun! Sleuthing out the sign over the shop, for example, almost plays like a mystery.

When we started off with Glenn Kurtz’s book most of the research was done. The sign above the store says “Grocery Store” in Polish, and we knew the line under it would give the name of the owner. But it was very hard to decipher, even under a microscope.

Originally this was, for me, a sign of how you can want to understand things, but even something recorded has limits. No matter how much you zoom in — this is it!

But when we went to Poland, I hired a very good researcher, and I asked her to have a look at a few things. She plugged away at it, each letter, it’s shaded this way, so it might be this or that, and then she compared the options to records from the period.

By luck we had Mr. Chandler, one of the survivors. When we asked him if our guess was the name, he said, “Yes, of course.” That’s the luck of an eyewitness, and finding someone with this particular expertise.

Townspeople of the predominantly Jewish village of Nasielsk, Poland, in 1938 as seen in Bianca Stigter’s ‘Three Minutes – A Lengthening.’ (Image courtesy of Family Affair Films, © US Holocaust Memorial Museum)

I know the whole origin of the project for you was stumbling on this story on Facebook; just a chance encounter. So much of this is chance encounters, like Mr. Chandler’s granddaughter seeing the video online and recognizing her grandfather’s smile.

Yes, to recognize your grandfather as a 13-year-old is a feat all its own. This story has so many twists and unexpected encounters. The original footage itself, found in Florida, it was quite deteriorated. Had Glenn Kurtz waited another month it would have been beyond restoration. It’s all so fragile.

Has working on this made you more attuned to chance encounters?

What I kept thinking about was the power of film and photography. It gives you a totally different relationship with reality than something like a painting ever could.

Now, of course, we have a different relationship with images. They are not rare anymore, and it’s so easy to change them — and fake them! Here we have something that is authentic and unfiltered. It isn’t propaganda, and it isn’t artistic, either. It’s touristic, maybe, because there was no connection anymore between the man who filmed it as an adult who had been most of his life in America. That’s also likely the only reason it still exists — it was safe away from Europe during the war.

I love the very last second of the film. Not even a second, 1/24th of a second — you leave in a flash of what’s next on Kurtz’s reel, an image of what followed on his vacation. It’s a pleasant image, but it hit me with a lot of emotion. We know, watching now, the horrors of what was about to happen to those people, but for him, he just went on with his life, oblivious.

Yes, life went on for him. He took three minutes of footage, then went on to film something else. And also, while watching it, we are [snaps fingers] brought back to our reality.

Maybe this is weird, but I think that flash is my favorite part of the movie. I found it really moving.

You are the first one to mention this.

You’ve brought the movie around to festivals, what have been some of the unexpected reactions?

The whole thing is unexpected; this is my first film. You may think something is good, but you never know how others will react. But it’s been going quite well, and also in places you may not expect, like Taiwan and Indonesia. That made me feel good, because it means it translates for people who do not have an immediate link with this history. It still resonates.

What is Holocaust awareness like in Amsterdam, and Holland in general, right now?

There are many good initiatives, but sometimes a bit late. Only recently did we erect a name monument for the Jewish, Roma and Sinti people who were deported from the Netherlands and murdered. It took many years; it was only a year ago it finally was completed. After the war, there was not a lot of interest in the Holocaust, but this has changed as years went by.

There’s also a German artist who makes small metal plates that you can ask to be placed in front of a house if a person lived there. You are seeing more of these in Amsterdam, which is a beautiful way to remember individuals.

That, for me, is the important aspect of my film. The Holocaust was so many millions of people, it becomes an abstraction. It’s too big to imagine. With this film, you see it happened to individuals. To this child who is smiling at the camera. To this child who is sulking a little bit. To a baby. It gives details to the abstraction.

Children living in the predominantly Jewish village of Nasielsk, Poland, in 1938 as seen in Bianca Stigter’s ‘Three Minutes – A Lengthening.’ (Image courtesy of Family Affair Films, © US Holocaust Memorial Museum)

Do you have a favorite face in the film? Maybe even one where you don’t know the name?

Yes, but it may not be appropriate for me to say.

What are you working on next?

While I made this film I created a book about Amsterdam during the war. Not a normal book, but more of a guide book that goes street by street, sometimes house by house, or even floor by floor, and tells what happened there during the war.

Anne Frank was in hiding, of course, but there were loads more in hiding. So this explains where they were, where the round-ups were, which schools held the German soldiers, where was the headquarters, where were the soup kitchens during the “hunger winter,” all of these things. And where were the bodies gathered when they could no longer be buried.

The book is only in Dutch, but it is also being made into a movie, which will be in English.

If you have roots in Amsterdam, this much touch on your own family, too.

My mother and her family are in the book — one of their addresses. My grandfather was slightly involved in the Resistance, and for some reason the Germans raided the house and took my grandfather to Dachau.

It sounds like an incredible project. This is something that, as an American, it’s rare to have a living city with that kind of history.

In Amsterdam, the buildings are from the 17th century. With the canals and everything, when you walk here you don’t immediately think of the war history. But the set, if you want to call it that, is still there. Nothing’s changed. If you know it, it’s very strange.

And it’s the same in Nasielsk, and you see it in “Three Minutes.” The synagogue is no longer there, and the stones were all taken from the Jewish cemetery, but the original buildings are still as they were when Mr. Chandler was there.