In 1938, David Kurtz traveled from his home in Flatbush, Brooklyn, for a vacation across Europe. He stopped in the small Polish village of Nasielsk, where he was born — a pinpoint on the map that would have been ignored by any tourist, and has been mostly overlooked by history.
But he happened to bring a 16mm camera, bought expressly for the trip. And in 2009, his grandson Glenn Kurtz found three minutes of footage, brittle with age, that pulls this tiny village back into our collective memory.
Kurtz wrote a beautiful book about his experience in 2014, called “Three Minutes in Poland: Discovering a Lost World in a 1938 Family Film.” Director Bianca Stigter found the book, and then the footage, which was added to the website of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. She was inspired by both to make a short film essay, “Three Minutes — Thirteen Minutes — Thirty Minutes,” which she has now expanded into “Three Minutes: A Lengthening.”
The truth is that even at 71 minutes much of this film feels padded, as though Stigter couldn’t let go of the subject but also wasn’t sure how to expand it further. Because Kurtz’s concept is so moving, however, the film retains much of the power he brought to his book.
How could it not? Stigter shows us the grainy footage multiple times in multiple ways, as Kurtz muses in voiceover about who we might be seeing when the camera pans across the town square. Hundreds of open and smiling faces, boys and girls and men and women, push and play and pour out of doorframes.
Then the gut-punch: out of the 3,000 Jews who lived in Nasielsk, approximately 80 survived the Holocaust that came to their town soon after these images were captured.
In his book, Kurtz approached the footage as a mystery to be solved. He talked to family members and historians and studied every possible clue for information. Stigter revisits some of his experience here, sharing a few of the painstaking discoveries he made. A carved panel in a door is revealed to be a Lion of Judah, which identifies the town synagogue. An elderly survivor named Maurice Chandler, who appears as a teenager, notes the hierarchies that existed among the kids based on the expense and style of their hats.
In these moments, the movie strongly recollects another recent Holocaust documentary, “From Where They Stood.” In that film, director Christophe Cognet searches photographs taken in concentration camps for identifying information. He approaches his work with an obsessive eye to specifics, finding answers and meaning in the most minute factual details.
In contrast, this project — which was co-produced by Stigter’s husband, Oscar-winning filmmaker Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave”) — aims for a broader and more artistic picture. The discovery that the trees in the film are lindens is humane and salient, a grounding feature that draws us closer in to the setting. But it doesn’t further our connection when narrator Helena Bonham Carter adds, “Around the square we see trees. A very generic word, trees. Christmas trees, palm trees, beeches, birches, bonsai, all trees.”
Similarly, while it is extraordinary to discover that much of the footage is in color, it feels like a distraction when Bonham Carter speaks over the stunning imagery itself: “Here we see a red flower, a red dress, a red bow. A red headscarf, a red belt, a red sweater, a red hat, a red cheek, a red lip.”
Indeed, it is the silent moments, when Stigter allows us to watch the film in awe, that hit the hardest. She does give us this opportunity more than once, and it’s particularly effective when we are required to sit with our own thoughts and observations of the images.
Kurtz, whose straightforward recounting of his detective work is stronger than Stigter’s written narration, understands this. “Three Minutes: A Lengthening” works best as a companion to his book; another way, as he says, to remember these once-ordinary people, to honor their lost history, and to be grateful for the gift his grandfather unwittingly left us.
“Three Minutes: A Lengthening” opens Friday nationwide in U.S. theaters.