Rare home movie footage shot in Poland in 1938 becomes a priceless historical artifact, documenting people and places obliterated by the Holocaust in Dutch writer-director Bianca Stigter’s haunting and provocative documentary essay “Three Minutes – A Lengthening.” She utilizes the three minutes and some-odd seconds of 16mm film shot by American visitor David Kurtz in the Jewish quarter of Nasielsk to craft an original and incisive meditation on history, memory, memorials and the very nature of celluloid. Certain to be an international festival talking point, the poignant film should segue to an extended life in ancillary.
Stigter’s method is simultaneously creative and forensic, but never sentimental. Working with a digitized copy that bears the blemishes left by the deterioration of the original celluloid, she conjures up exactly what she declares in the subtitle: a lengthening.
On the image track, the three minutes play out again and again, but Stigter cleverly varies the way that she presents the limited material to us. At first, we see the footage as if it were being projected in 16mm, with the clacking sound of celluloid moving through the metal gate of a now near-obsolete projector as the only thing on the soundtrack. Then the footage runs backwards as the deliberate narration, well-delivered by Helena Bonham Carter, alternates with the backstory of the footage as told by Glenn Kurtz, grandson of David, who donated it to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. There it was restored and digitized.
Both Glenn Kurtz and Stigter concern themselves with what can be learned from the filmed images. As Kurtz’s voiceover shares the details of his painstaking detective work to identify the place where it was shot and some of the people in it, Stigter slows the footage, highlights single frames and enlarges images.
In 1938, Nasielsk was a small village of some 7,000 people, 3,000 of them Jewish. Thirty miles north of Warsaw, it was home to a Jewish-owned button factory, the output of which becomes a point of interest in the images and in a story from an elderly Holocaust survivor. We also learn that by 1945, only 100 of Nasielsk’s Jews were still alive.
Given our present-day knowledge of the Holocaust, this number is not a surprise, yet still it is a shock. An even bigger shock comes with what is perhaps the most heart-rending part of the film, the reading in full of an eye-witness testimony to the deportation of Nasielsk’s Jews, preserved in the Emanuel Ringelblum Archive. In December of 1939, barely a year and a half after this footage was shot, they were ordered to gather in the very market square we can see in the film.
As part of her close analysis of the footage, Stigter counts more than 150 separate individuals. Through her efforts, and those of Glenn Kurtz, who tracked down a handful of survivors, names can be attributed to less than a dozen people.
Often, names are the thing that remain after people die, but here, in this footage, it is only faces. But thanks to the malleability of the digital medium, Stigter does something quite affecting with these faces. She manipulates them into small squares resembling still photos and lines them up in rows, until the screen is full. It’s a memorial within a memorial.
At the end of Stigter’s film, we see the images again as we saw them in the opening moments. Now, armed with a better knowledge of who we are looking at and their tragic fate, these images resonate with a larger meaning.
The film benefits from an impressive minimalist score by the young Dutch composer Wilko Sterke and excellent sound design by Mark Glynne that makes it seem as if voiceovers of Bonham-Carter and the other interviewees are in dialogue.
Unusually, but perhaps appropriate to a film in which names and faces constitute such an important element, Stigter supplements the end credits with photos of all those involved in the making of the film.