“Why do only third-generation Germans ask what happened? You don’t understand and I’m glad you don’t.”
That’s the reaction Jewish filmmaker Arnon Goldfinger gets from a friend of his mother when he asks about the family connections to a Nazi officer.
“The Flat” refers to a little slice of Berlin in Israel. Goldfinger and his siblings remember visiting his grandmother’s flat in Tel Aviv, which she kept as though it were her old home in Germany before the war. There are closets that they weren’t allowed to explore as children, but the movie opens after her death, when Goldfinger, his mother, and his siblings face the task of going through grandma’s stuff and clearing out the flat.
Goldfinger finds some saved newspapers. He reads a story about a Nazi who travels to Palestine with the aim of founding a colony for German Jews. People who traveled got a disc with a star of David on one side and a swastika on the other. But what did this have to do with his grandparents? Goldfinger decides he’ll try to find out.
He discovers that his grandparents were friends with a German Nazi named Von Mildenstein, and that they remained friends, unbeknownst to anyone else in the family, for years.
Many people, myself included, have made genealogical films. Rarely are they of any interest outside the family. The Flat succeeds. First, it has a good subject: Jewish exiles making friends with Nazis. Second, Goldfinger is a pretty good storyteller: he starts the film with a mystery and sets out methodically to solve it.
The best trait of The Flat is that Goldfinger finds a universal theme in the specific details of his own story. It’s summed up in his mother’s friend’s retort, the one about the third generation being the one to ask questions.
Take his mother, for example. She didn’t know about her parents’ Nazi friend — only after Goldfinger started investigating did she learn about it. Goldfinger finds the same thing when he travels to Germany to meet Edda, the daughter of the Von Mildensteins. She believes her father was not a Nazi because he won a libel suit in Britain over having been called one. Beyond that, she knows nothing. It was not something his generation spoke about, and her generation knew not to ask.
At one point Goldfinger tires to ask Edda’s husband about Von Mildenstein, but the questions make him uncomfortable, too. Goldfinger can’t seem to ask his mother’s generation about the war without it sounding like an accusation.
The movie’s most pointed and revealing scene — maybe its climax — involves Goldfinger returning to Edda to revealing his research: her father was a Nazi, and fairly high ranking, too. You can actually see the cognitive dissonance as she subconsciously dismisses the information in front of her face.
His dumbfounded reaction is the same as ours: what can you say to someone who simply doesn’t want to know? Why bother? What good would it do? We say “never forget,” but for those directly involved, who wants the pain of remembering?
The psychological revelations in The Flat led me to think about my own family. I’ve seen the futile efforts of my generation to win acknowledgements from my parents’ generation. I’ve seen cognitive-dissonance denial. I’ve had conversations within my generation about laying bare the ugly truths of my parents’ generation. And I’ve heard the responses: Why Bother? What good would it do?
If Goldfinger can’t find satisfaction with historically important figures (Nazis and Holocaust survivors), what chance do my own little family stories have of seeing daylight?