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Three Minutes: A Lengthening review – fragments of a Jewish town destroyed by war

Perhaps “a deepening” is closer to the mark. This arresting film is about a vivid process of reconstruction, or recontextualisation, like finding a fragment of an Etruscan pot in the soil and imagining what the whole pot looked like, what the society that produced it looked like, and what the violence that destroyed it looked like.

It is based on the book Three Minutes in Poland: Discovering a Lost World in a 1938 Family Film by the American memoirist and author Glenn Kurtz. In 2009, he had chanced upon a home movie shot by his grandfather David, who had come as a child from Poland to the US and made a prosperous life for himself there. The film recorded the family’s European vacation in 1938 and included a remarkable three-minute segment shot in his hometown of Nasielsk in eastern Poland, the first time that little place had ever been recorded on film. The movie vividly captures the Jewish inhabitants’ innocent bustling happiness at that moment, just months before they were deported to the ghettos by the invading Nazis and from there to be murdered in Treblinka.

Related: ‘A small victory against erasure’: the three minutes that bring an exterminated Jewish past to life

As Kurtz’s camera panned across the town square, the faces of grinning excited children surge into the forefront, with warier, curious adults in the background. This film recounts the historical process of digitally restoring the film, deciphering shop signs, identifying buildings , and then putting it up online and asking for survivors to come forward. Grippingly, one did: Moszek Tuchendler, who escaped Poland and anglicised his name to Maurice Chandler, instantly saw himself in one beaming, plump-cheeked boy and we hear his audio testimony.

Director Bianca Stigter has taken a kind of procedural decision not to show any modern faces or activity on screen, nothing other than the flickering film itself, with moments and freeze-frame images shown over and over; a decision which in some ways is the converse of Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, which only showed the present-day witnesses. (However, over the closing credits we see the older Maurice Chandler – and yes, he is unmistakable.) This is a gripping historical investigation.

• Three Minutes: A Lengthening is released on 2 December in cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema.