Fri 30 Dec 2011
Arnon Goldfinger‘s most recent documentary The Flat (best documentary awards at the Jerusalem and Haifa film festivals, now shown at the cinematheques around Israel including the one in my village) starts as a typical family story. A few weeks after the director’s grandmother dies the family starts looking into the things accumulated in her Tel Aviv flat. The apartment is full of objects gathered through a full life, and as it gradually empties and light starts penetrating the shady corners, details from a hidden past start to emerge. As many other immigrants coming from Europe Gerda and Kurt Tuchler had gathered not only things from a past time and an old country, but also photos and documents of a life that brought them from the Berlin between the two wars to Palestine which was to become the State of Israel. Soon we learn that the Tuchlers seemed to be the kind of immigrants who kept not only memories and nostalgia, but a strong attraction and relationship with the old country. An intriguing story completely unknown to the third generation starts to uncover from the drawers and boxes left in the flat – photos, letters, newspapers from Nazi Germany and one of the strangest coins that ever existed, with a Magen David on one side and a swastika on the other. The Tuchlers were friends with a family of high Nazi dignitaries named von Mildenstein, they traveled with them to Palestine after the Nazis came to power and before settling here definitively, and the trip was described in details by Leopold von Mildenstein in the German press of the time under the title ‘A Nazi travels to Palestine’. Despite the fact that the story was researched and mentioned in the German and Israeli press after the war, the family knows close to nothing about it. The film describes the process of gradual discovery which is not void of surprises, as they soon learn that the Tuchlers and the Mildensteins continued their friendly relations after the war, despite the fact that von Mildenstein seemed to have been quite an important figure in the Nazi regime, and related to the fate of the Jews (he was the one who recruited Eichman and preceded him in the position of responsible of the Jewish affairs). How much the Tuchlers knew about the activities of their German friend during the war and what these really were remains in part a mystery.
A short search on the Internet shows that Leopold von Mildenstein was not really an unknown character, and even the very popular Wikipedia dedicates him quite a detailed article, which I wonder whether Arnon Godfinger read during the investigation and making of the film. The information in Wikipedia places him after 1936 and during the war in the press bureau of the Foreign Ministry and not in Goebbels’ Ministry of Propaganda as Goldfinger discovered during his investigations, and mentions two books he wrote about the Middle East and published in 1938 and 1941 which are not mentioned in the film. Neither is mentioned in the film a claimed relation with the CIA, which was used by von Mildenstein to escape prosecution after the Eichman trial. This story may still have hidden secrets which I doubt will ever be fully clarified. In 1980 the British magazine History Today published an article about von Mildenstein and Tuchler’s visit to Palestine in 1933, which was followed by some anti-Zionist follow-up publications trying to emphasize the relation between the Nazi regime and the Zionist organizations who had for a few year a shared interest in planing for the German Jews emigration to Israel, before the Nazi policies towards Jews took the path that led to the Final Solution, starting with and after 1936.
The film focuses on the process of gradual discovery which is for the author-director a trip in the past of his own family, a trip which will take him to Germany, to Berlin where he discovers remote relatives still living in the same area where his grandparents lived and to a series of meetings with the daughter of the Mildensteins. Dialogs between German and Jewish families who lived through the war and between their descendants are never easy, and they say a lot about how people who lived through the period relate to history, how they cope with the horrors of the war and of the Holocaust and how they passed these feelings to the coming generations. A strong similarity soon emerges, as in both families, the German one and the Jewish one, the same rule of silence seems to have been enforced, the past was kept secret and almost nothing told to the next generation. The children were raised not to ask questions, and their lives were completely disconnected from the history of their families. During Goldfinger’s inquiry and film making both families are up for painful revelations and none of the second generation is really prepared to cope with role played by the high German functionary in the Nazi regime, or with the fate of the Jewish grand-grandmother left behind in Berlin and murdered in the Holocaust. It is the third generation (of the director) who is destined to ask the questions and get part of the answers. The mystery of the Tuchlers is not fully revealed and will probably never be completely. In one of the final scenes of the film the director and his mother are looking under a pouring rain for the grave of the grand-grandfather in a Jewish cemetery in Berlin. They cannot find it, the place where it should be is covered by vegetation. The physical link with the past has completely vanished. The spiritual link of the old generation who could not tear themselves from the cultural and mentality relation with the old Europe even after the horrors of the Holocaust is the troubling secret investigated and revealed in part by this documentary.