Personal detectives

Filmmakers chart their family histories (and mysteries) at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

Out of the past: The Flat

SFJFF This year's San Francisco Jewish Film Festival includes a trio of documentaries inspired by ephemera: hand-scrawled memoirs and journals, decades-old letters, fading photographs, and yellowing newspapers, long-forgotten and crumpled into attics and storage closets.

Dust be damned, for all three filmmakers — Arnon Goldfinger (The Flat), David Fisher (Six Million and One), and Daniel Edelstyn (How to Re-Establish a Vodka Empire) — become obsessed with these scraps from the past, and with piecing together their family histories, all of which were studded with tragedy and rarely discussed with younger generations. The task requires the kind of determination that can only be mined from a deeply personal place — and it results in some deeply personal films.

The docs are similar, especially when viewed in the short span of a festival, but Goldfinger's The Flat is the standout. It begins as the filmmaker's family descends upon the Tel Aviv apartment of his recently-deceased grandmother, "a bit of a hoarder" who lived to 95 and seemingly never got rid of anything. This includes, as Goldfinger discovers, copies of the Joseph Goebbels-founded newspaper Der Angriff, containing articles about "the Nazi who visited Palestine." The Nazi was Leopold von Mildenstein, an SS officer with an interest in Zionism. Turns out he made the journey in 1933 with his wife and a Jewish couple named Kurt and Gerda Tuchler — Goldfinger's grandparents.

Understandably intrigued and more than a little baffled, Goldfinger investigates, finding letters and diary entries that reveal the unlikely traveling companions were close friends, even after World War II. His mother, the Tuchler's daughter, prefers to "keep the past out," but curiosity (and the pursuit of a good documentary) presses Goldfinger forward; he visits von Mildenstein's elderly daughter in Germany, digs through German archives, and unearths even more surprises about his family tree. Broader themes about guilt and denial emerge — post-traumatic coping mechanisms that echo through generations.

Family is a favorite subject for fellow Israeli David Fisher (2000's Love Inventory). For Six Million and One, he rounds up his brothers and sister for a visit to the Austrian concentration camp where their late father was held as a teen. The elder Fisher recorded his thoughts in a memoir that only David can bear to read. As the siblings engage in the odd pursuit of being tourists in a place of brutality — the film illustrates the town's changing landscape through eerie, before-and-after photos — their playful arguments escalate into legit psychodrama as the camera rolls and four raw nerves react to their intense emotions.

Interspersed with this journey is David Fisher's visit with some American veterans who saw unimaginable horrors when they arrived to liberate the camps. It becomes clear that post-traumatic stress doesn't just affect Jewish families grappling with the after effects of the Holocaust. When Fisher wistfully remarks that his father never spoke about his experiences, an elderly solder tells him, "Maybe you're better off not having heard the stories."

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