For those of us far enough removed from the generations of Jews and Germans who lived through the extraordinary horrors of the 1930s–1940s, it is nearly impossible for us to wrap our brains around Holocaust denial. It is difficult to imagine that the tragedy and horrors of that time would not be something revealed to our generation by those who lived through it. But that deeply unimaginable horror has kept many of us in the dark all these years later. When we think of all of the Jews and Germans who have come forward years later to tell their stories and make sure that we never forget, we sometimes do forget about those who suffered in silence for fear of remembering what they went through.
Filmmaker Arnon Goldfinger found a unique opportunity to use his masterful ability for storytelling through documentary film when his 90-year-old German grandmother died in Tel Aviv. Goldfinger was a first-generation Israeli after his grandparents emigrated from Berlin in the mid-1930s. Having grown up with no knowledge of his grandparents’ history in Germany before World War II, Goldfinger uncovers information, bit by bit, about his grandmother and grandfather that shocks and disturbs him.
The Tuchlers — Goldfinger’s grandparents —worked with a German couple, the von Mildensteins, to convince Jews to move to Palestine in the early- to mid-1930s. While the von Mildensteins’ true intentions with these transports remain unclear even after World War II breaks out, according to the propaganda papers Goldfinger finds, this strategy was all part of the Nazi plan to rid Germany of the “Jewish problem.”
Despite the von Mildensteins’ dubious connection to the Nazis, Goldfinger uncovers evidence that the Tuchlers and von Mildensteins continued to communicate and remain friends well into the 1950s. For him, the idea that Jews could maintain a friendship with possible Nazi collaborators after the war is mindboggling.
Goldfinger’s effort to not only uncover as much as he can about his grandparents’ past, but also to wrap his mind around the apparent denial of this past by both his mother and the von Mildensteins’ daughter, makes for an extremely compelling documentary.
Again, we are familiar with stories of survivors coming forward with their stories, but we’re less accustomed to stories of those who deeply denied and kept their history buried. Goldfinger struggles with how to approach the von Mildensteins’ daughter, Edda, who never asked her parents about their involvement in the war. He struggles even more with his own mother’s disinterest in her parents’ past, the truth about her grandmother’s death at the hands of the Nazis, and the fact that she never asked questions about all of this while growing up.
Goldfinger captures his subjects’ generational distinctions. The two women — Goldfinger’s mother Hannah and Edda von Mildenstein — point out how difficult it was for not only the generation that lived through the Holocaust to talk about what happened, but also the difficulty the next generation had asking questions. The subject was forbidden in many households and it wasn’t until the third generation became discontented with merely accepting the silence that people began to act upon their need for answers.
Many of the questions about the Tuchlers’ story go unanswered, as Goldfinger realizes that without knowing what truths were told between his grandparents and the friends they kept in touch with in Germany after the war, he cannot know many things for sure. But these truths become less important to him than the way his mother emotionally responds and deals with these revealed secrets. “The Flat” is an eloquently orchestrated documentary about how human beings cope with the reality of the Holocaust in a unique way we do not see often in film.