Arnon Goldfinger’s documentary The Flat begins with a significant, if not altogether extraordinary event in the life of the filmmaker’s family. His grandmother has died, and the family gathers to clean out her apartment in Tel Aviv where she has lived for decades. It is an experience any of us who have had to tackle a similar job can relate to. Stacked high with books and crammed with clothes, letters, photos, knick-knacks, furniture, and other odds-and-ends, Arnon’s grandmother was something of a pack rat, preserving the feel of the Berlin of her youth through the apartment in Israel. At first, the director is most interested in his mother, who systematically works through old bank statements and invoices, examining each shard of mail, but is eager to throw away letters and photographs. Then the house cleaning offers a curious and unexplained object, a coin medallion featuring a star of David on one side and a Nazi swastika on the other. That object sets-off Arnon’s deeper investigation.
The coin is one of a number of artifacts that suggest a strange, unspoken history behind Arnon’s grandparents move to Palestine in the 1930s. There is also a copy of a Nazi newspaper and an article about a SS officer’s trip to Palestine, accompanied by none other than Arnon’s grandparents. He inquires with his mother, but she knows nothing about the trip or the circumstances surrounding her own parent’s move from Berlin to Tel Aviv. As Arnon investigates, his mother Hannah seems almost resistant to knowing the truth about the family past.
Shot in a leisurely, conversational style, with memoir-style voiceover provided by Arnon, The Flat operates on a number of narrative and metaphoric levels. One of the most interesting is this basic generational divide between Arnon and his mother, the director’s inquisitiveness about his family’s history, and his mother’s lack of interest. Even though Arnon’s grandmother lived the majority of her life as an Israeli, her apartment in Tel Aviv existed as a kind of shrine to Germanic culture. Hannah’s apartment, on the other hand, is clean and modern. As Arnon’s investigation into his grandparent’s life uncovers stranger, unexplainable facts, Hannah’s disinterest begins to feel suspicious, or almost culpable. The Flat becomes a film about how generation shapes our attitudes and experience of history.
Culpability is another theme that hovers over The Flat. Arnon discovers a letter from the former SS officer to his grandparents, and a phone call to Germany leads to the realization that his grandparents were lifelong friends with a man who, during the war, was a high ranking member of Goebbels propaganda ministry and who tried to solve the “Jewish question,” by encouraging self-deportation to Israel. Nonetheless, Arnon’s grandparents continued to travel to Germany and visit the von Midensteins well after the war was over, even despite the fact that Arnon’s own great-grandmother was killed in a concentration camp, another historical fact that Arnon’s mother knew nothing about.
There are times in The Flat when we begin to wonder if Arnon’s soft-handed approach to uncovering the secrets of his family’s past are causing the film to meander a little. He travels to the small city of Wuppertal to meet the von Midensteins daughter, but never fully confronts them about all of the secrets he has discovered about her own father, history that that family is also repressing – consciously or not. But its Arnon’s gently inquisitive personality that, in the end, proves the film’s greatest strength. He is neither a vigilante on a mission nor an investigative journalist building a case. Rather, he is a witness to an incredible untold history, which brought to light, raises as many questions as it answers. The figure of history emerges here as an elusive and enigmatic entity, but one whose pursuit is nonetheless vital if we are to have any understanding of who we are today.