The film excerpts played and repeated in Three Minutes: A Lengthening open a window – smeared, weathered, mysterious, revealing – into a world that no longer exists.
To a certain extent, as noted by one of the interlocutors in this inquiring and thoughtful essay-film, this is the fate of most filmed non-fiction, as documented reality is always in flux. But the weight of history gives these specific images a particularly strong, sobering power.
Shot in 1938 by a young Polish-American émigré, David Kurtz, during a summer trip back to his hometown of Nasielsk, they represent the only known cinematic record of life in this tiny village before most of its 3,000 Jewish residents were deported and murdered in the Holocaust became .
Seeing the townspeople in these 16mm Kodachrome images gathering on a cobbled square or pouring out of a synagogue is struck by the grim knowledge of what awaits them in just over a year. But while Kurtz’s footage – unearthed years later by his grandson Glenn Kurtz – is a snapshot of a community in the looming shadow of death, it is nonetheless a persistent, even defiant repository of life. And there is so much life in the faces of these men, women and children, especially as they react to the unprecedented sight of a film camera in their midst. Some of them ambush and wave happily; others confidently snatch their loved ones out of the way.
Directed by Dutch historian and cultural critic Bianca Stigter and crisply narrated by Helena Bonham Carter, Three Minutes: A Lengthening expresses his own fascination with – and skepticism about – the properties of the film camera. To ensure maximum immersion, Stigter keeps this approximately three minutes of footage for the film’s 69-minute runtime, sometimes freezing, slowing down or zooming in on the images but never cropping from them. The voices we hear are all disembodied, including Glenn Kurtz, who describes his efforts to identify as many people as possible in his grandfather’s recordings. (These efforts were also documented in his 2015 book, Three Minutes in Poland: Discovering a Lost World in a 1938 Family Film.)
Like other filmmakers determined to do the right thing by the gravity of their subject, Stigter (who served as associate producer on Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave and Widows) conducts her investigations with impressive formal parsimony and a rigorous spirit of self-inquiry away . She knows that every documentary image is both a representation and a distortion, a captured reality that excludes and decontextualizes as much as it reveals. Some of the faces we see, someone points out, probably belong to the city’s Orthodox Jewish population, as they would have been wary of appearing on camera. Properly analyzing the city’s cultural, religious, economic and class dynamics – to get a sense of how life was really lived here – would require more research and study than three minutes of amateur camera work can provide.
At the same time, the lack of other pre-WWII images of Nasielsk makes David Kurtz’s footage both vivid and risqué — and ultimately, so interesting.
Stigter and Glenn Kurtz puzzle over the mysteries hidden in the footage, like the meaning of the barely legible sign hanging over a local market. Which family did this establishment belong to? What were the names of the other townspeople? (Only about 80 Jews from Nasielsk survived the war; some of their voices make their way into the film.) As the investigation deepens, stories pour out from the village, one of which is about the button factory, which was one of Nasielsk’s most important, thriving and well-respected Company. Another sheds light on the history of the symbols of the Lion of Judah engraved on the synagogue doors; their defacement offers a sad reminder that this and other predominantly Jewish cities have never been alien to anti-Semitic violence.
In other words, there’s a lot in those three minutes, as does this sparse but rich documentation.
“Three Minutes: An Extension” is a snapshot, a memorial, a tricky philosophical crime thriller and a devastating portrayal of Nazi atrocities. It is also an extended musing on the illusory, entropic nature of the cinematic medium itself. Carter’s narration draws our attention to the faded, muted colors of the footage, the warping and buckling of the images, the once sharp outlines of faces and figures becoming hazy and have become unclear. The artifacts of the past are just as susceptible to damage and decay as our memories, which is all the more reason to cherish them in the present.
‘Three Minutes: An Overtime’
Valuation: PG, for Holocaust themed material
Duration: 1 hour, 9 minutes
To play: Begins August 19 at the Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2022-08-18/three-minutes-a-lengthening-review-holocaust-documentary ‘Three Minutes: A Lengthening’ review: A haunting Holocaust doc