So long as we are watching history, history is not over.
David Kurtz was born in the Polish town of Nasielsk early in the 20th century. While he was still young, his family emigrated to the United States. In 1938, as a grown man, David embarked on a vacation in Europe, buying a 16mm video camera to record his adventures. As part of his tour, he returned to Nasielsk. He shot three minutes of footage while in the Jewish section of the town, the place he had come from. The next year, the German army would invade. At the time of David’s visit, roughly 3,000 Jews resided there. By the end of World War II, only about 100 of them would still be alive. The film strip of David Kurtz’s trip is the only moving image documentation of Nasielsk’s former Jewish neighborhood in existence.
The film was forgotten for more than 70 years, until David’s grandson Glenn Kurtz discovered it amongst his grandfather’s belongings. He did so in the nick of time; even another month, and the celluloid would have degraded too much to save. But it was restored and preserved, and is now available to view from sources like the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Glenn Kurtz’s subsequent research into the footage and the old Jewish community in Nasielsk resulted in his 2014 book Three Minutes in Poland. Now, in cooperation with Kurtz, director Bianca Stigter has made her own cinematic investigation into the footage. Three Minutes — A Lengthening, which has recently been playing film festivals such as Toronto and Sundance, is a riveting look at the myriad ways we can look at, think about, pick apart, and remember historical evidence.
The film operates within a challenging conceit: Nearly all its imagery comes solely from David Kurtz’s vacation film. How can the same three minutes’ worth of material remain engaging for more than an hour? Stigter continually finds new ways to reframe and recontextualize the footage. One sequence scrutinizes the sign on a grocery store, and with different color filters and zooms explains how archivists can play detective and discern text which at first brush might seem completely illegible. Another tallies the total number of people seen in the footage — around 180. As narrator Helena Bonham Carter talks about what little we know about them, one by one, still images of each of their profiles line up together, until the screen is a mosaic album of their faces. Watching the footage, it’s easy for these people to become an undifferentiated mass. This scene reinforces their individuality, emphasizing that each one of them was a human being. They each had their own lives, of which this film was but a snapshot, but now it is for many of them the only evidence that they ever existed.
Incredibly, Glenn Kurtz’s research for his book led him to discover that one of the people in the film had not only survived the Holocaust, but was still alive and in Detroit. Maurice Chandler, 13 years old when David Kurtz came to visit his town, appears here in voiceover to speak about his experiences and memories. It is yet another way in which Three Minutes is not just a film about how preservation and artifacts can bring history alive, but is also itself such an act of preservation. Seeing Chandler’s youthful face while hearing his elderly voice produces remarkable frisson; it’s a haunting example of how cinema can easily collapse time and distance. His presence emphasizes again that each person in Kurtz’s footage had such a story. Most of those stories are lost forever, but in this footage, just for a few seconds, we can glimpse them again.
Three Minutes — A Lengthening recently played as part of the Sundance Film Festival. The film opens in theaters this spring.
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