At the start of The Flat, Israeli film director Arnon Goldfinger discovers items of substantial controversy among the 70 years’ worth of garments and ephemera in his deceased grandmother’s Tel Aviv apartment: coins, letters, and photographs that corroborate a deep and durable relationship between Goldfinger’s German émigré grandparents, the Tuchlers, and erstwhile SS Officer Leopold von Mildenstein. Perplexed but curious, the documentarian bounces between Israel and Germany with his video camera, conducting extensive research to determine why in the world his Zionist Jew ancestors would have maintained ties with Nazis as late as the 1950s. Throughout, key transitions between interviews and expository sequences are signaled by the banally symbolic image of a venetian blind being yanked upward; the actual progress of Goldfinger’s truth hunt, however, is more like a flashlight’s beam cutting dimly and ineffectually through a dark landscape. Late in the film, an elderly Israeli friend of the Tuchlers partly explains the source of the frustration: “...only third-generation [German Jews] ask questions.” Due to their proximity to the racial trauma of the Shoah, Holocaust survivors and their progeny were and are famously mute on the topic, even within the safety of domestic privacy.
Goldfinger eventually determines that the answers to his questions lie in the complexities of Mildenstein’s biography. Rather than arrogantly assuming he can parse the nuance of the human relationship his grandparents enjoyed with the once high-ranking Nazi official, he instead uses archival scraps and testimony to create a piquant and occasionally forgiving collage portrait of the man. (One fascinating factoid: Mildenstein ardently proselytized for Zionism within Hitler’s regime before forsaking it in favor of the more radical “Jewish solutions” concocted by Adolf Eichmann.) This approach is admirable for its open-mindedness, but the struggle to maintain objectivity turns Goldfinger into a milquetoast narrator and interviewer. During his meetings with Mildenstein’s aging daughter, we mostly watch them exchange cordial pleasantries, and few clues are revealed. Goldfinger further shies away from glaringly valid accusations that might excite the documentary’s pulse: For example, that Mildenstein indirectly supported the architecture of the Holocaust, and that his postwar relationship with Goldfinger’s Jewish grandparents was meant to cleverly scaffold his innocence with regard to Nazi war crimes. The information Goldfinger excavates in Tel Aviv and Germany seems to suggest as much, but his passionless reportage style discourages us from connecting the damning dots ourselves.
Accusation is the rhetoric of outrage, and Goldfinger can’t bring himself to experience even conservative anger, regardless of its appropriateness. The focus on fact-finding rather than cathartic speculation evinces unthinkable politesse on the filmmaker’s part, but the information he compiles is full of holes that can only be spackled with emotional response he refuses to provide; the director rarely annotates the bewildering affect of his findings, and when featured on screen, his expression appears calculated for unreadability. (The film’s crisp and colorless cinematography is similarly detached; skin tones, clothing, and upholstery appear drained of vibrancy and character.) “I just can’t understand the relationship between my grandparents and von Mildenstein,” he says in the documentary’s final moments—which should have been the film’s impetus rather than its conclusion. Quite ironically, The Flat is too repressed itself to investigate the topic of repressed histories in earnest.