When Arnon Goldfinger's 98-year-old grandmother Gerda passed away, the Israeli filmmaker and teacher set out to make a short film about her flat in Tel Aviv. He remembered it from his childhood as a place where Germany was very present. Although they had emigrated from Germany to Israel in the 30's before World War II was fully raging, his grandmother and grandfather never assimilated into Israeli culture. Their books, spoken language, furniture and clothing remained as it was in Germany, simply transported to another city. In order to process her passing and say goodbye to her, Goldfinger set out to see what he could learn about her from the things she left behind. He thought about what he had always told his students: In your work, you must do something that is meaningful to your life. And the most meaningful work is that which you really do just for yourself. But he hoped that perhaps what was meaningful to him would also be meaningful to others.
So, he brought his camera crew to his grandmother's flat and filmed everything as he and his family unearthed her treasures, her ephemera, and eventually, her secrets.
Although his grandparent's story is a very individual one it brings up issues that we all deal with in our lives, from the mundane--what do we save and what do we throw away—to the very emotional--what do we share with our family, what do we talk about and what do we hide?
"The film is talking about very basic things," Goldfinger said recently as he passed through Los Angeles to discuss it. "Friendship, longing for the motherland and our connection to our past." He talked about how the second generation of Holocaust era survivors rarely asked questions, for fear of bringing up painful memories. It was easier for the third generation, a bit removed, to ask the tough questions about a painful past. But in talking to audiences at his screenings, he discovered that many children of all backgrounds know little of their family's history.
Goldfinger's film is really about two families, his grandparents and a family in Germany to whom they remained connected during and after the war. In a probing, yet sensitive way, Goldfinger peeled back the layers of their history and discovered some troubling surprises. He knew he could never have asked his grandmother the questions he tried to answer after her death.
But in making this journey to unravel a tangled web of secrets, "I feel much closer to them now," he says of his grandparents. "They became much more human. I felt compassion and sometimes anger. I feel I know them better but that knowing is connected to emotions. When I learned what she was hiding, I was astonished. But people are very complicated. Not everything is in your control."
For many of the German Jews who emigrated to Israel, their connection to their past and to their adopted country was fraught with many conflicting feelings. "When the State of Israel was started, the pioneers and leaders wanted to make a new nation--fresh, brave, strong, with no connections to the Diaspora, to weakness. Of course, it was an illusion," he said. "No one can live without the past."
"The Flat," Goldfinger's exploration of his family's complicated and very unique history, is haunting, thought-provoking and universally human. It opens at the Landmark Theatres on October 24.
Photo of Goldfinger: Iris Schneider. Photo of Gerda and Kurt Tuchler © Goldfinger / Tuchler Family Archive.