Rare home movie footage shot in Poland in 1938 turned into an invaluable historical work of art, documenting the people and places devastated by the Holocaust. He created an original and stimulating meditation on history, memories, recollections, and the nature of celluloid, using three minutes and a few weird seconds of photographing American visitor David Kurtz in the Jewish Quarter of Nasselsk. Speaking of an international festival, of course, the deadly film should incidentally lead to an extended life.
Stigter’s approach is both creative and forensic, but never sentimental. Working with a digitized copy that bears the stains that fall as a result of the subtraction of the original celluloid fixes exactly what he declares in the subtitles: an elongated.
On the image track, three minutes of repetitive play, but Steiger cleverly changes the way he presents us with limited material. At first, we could see the footage as if it were being projected 16mm, the sound of the celluloid cloaking now running through the metal gate of a stationary projector as the only thing on the soundtrack. The footage then goes back to Helena Bunham Carter as a well-distributed intentional narrative, which is replaced by the story behind the footage by David’s grandson Glenn Kurtz, who donated it to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. There it was restored and digitized.
Glenn Cartz and Stigter both worry about what they can learn from the paintings. Kurtz’s voiceover shares details of his hard-working detective work where it was shot, and to identify some of its occupants, slow down stigma footage, highlight single frames, and enlarge images.
In 1938, Nazielsk was a small village of about 7,000 people, 3,000 of them Jews. Thirty miles north of Warsaw, it was the residence of a Jewish-owned button factory, whose production figure and a story of an elderly Holocaust survivor became of interest. We also learn that by 1945, 100 Jews in Nazielsk were still alive.
Given our current knowledge of the Holocaust, this number is not surprising, yet it is a shock. Even more shocking is the most heartbreaking part of the film, the testimony of eyewitness accounts of the deportation of Jews from Nasselsk, preserved in the Emanuel Ringleblum Archive. In December 1939, just a year and a half after the footage was shot, they were instructed to assemble at the market square we saw.
As part of his close analysis of the footage, Stiger counted more than 150 individuals. Through his efforts, and the names of a handful of survivors of Glenn Kurtz, less than a dozen people can be named.
Often, names are things that remain after a person dies, but here, in this footage, it’s just the face. But thanks to the vulnerability of digital media, Steiger has quite a few effects with these faces. Arrange them in small squares and in rows like still photos until the screen is full. It is a monument in a memorial.
At the end of Stigtar’s film, we get to see the pictures again as we did in the opening moments. Now, armed with a better knowledge of who we are looking at and their tragic consequences, these images resonate with even greater meaning.
The film benefits from an impressive minimum score by young Dutch composer Wilco Stark and Mark Glynn’s excellent sound design that makes it look like Bonham-Carter and other interviewers are in a voiceover dialogue.
Unusually, but probably suitable for a film where names and faces form such an important element, Stiger adds the final credit to the photos of everyone involved in making the film.