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Three Minutes: A Lengthening review: Haunting documentary about the Holocaust

It’s mostly faces that we see in Bianca Stigter’s remarkable documentary essay film Three Minutes: A Lengthening. Faces young and old, masculine and feminine, bearded and bare. Smiling faces, curious faces, the faces of the past. They belong to the men, women, and children of Nasielsk, a small Polish town about 50 kilometers north of Warsaw. Into the streets these townsfolk pour, to meet the gaze of a camera filming their storefronts and synagogue.

That camera captured just three minutes of life on August 4, 1938 — an ordinary day in Nasielsk, save for the uncommon presence of the prodigal son immortalizing it. The silent 16mm footage was shot by David Kurtz, a Polish expat passing through his childhood hometown on holiday. Seven decades later, his grandson, Glenn Kurtz, found the badly degraded reel in a closet in Palm Springs. Through some investigating, he’d confirm that the town was Nasielsk, and that nearly every person glimpsed in the footage was murdered shortly thereafter, when the Nazis forced them from their homes and into concentration camps. That’s the full significance of the home movie his grandfather packed away: It’s the only existing footage of a mostly Jewish community completely wiped out by Hitler’s genocide.

You could call Three Minutes: A Lengthening a triumph of preservation — a miraculous realization of the imperative to remember both the unfathomable evil of the Holocaust and the people destroyed by it. But such a description could also be applied to the unedited footage itself, fully restored and available to watch at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Stigter has done more than simply bring what the elder Kurtz captured on that day in Poland to movie screens. She’s leapt deeply into this invaluable archival discovery, retraced the steps the younger Kurtz took to locate survivors, and pored over every frame to try and shed new light on lives that would soon be cut tragically short.

The people of Nasielsk stare into the camera.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Stigter opens the movie with the footage in full — that three-minute tour of Nasielsk, shot in black-and-white and color, marked by varying degrees of decay, presented without commentary. It turns out that these images will be the only ones we see in Three Minutes: A Lengthening. Over the hour and change that follows, Stigter will return to particular moments, run the footage forward and backwards, zoom in on pertinent details, and at one point create a panoramic view of the main street Kurtz walked and filmed. Talking heads will comment on what we see, but only in voice-over. True to its title, the film treats those three minutes as an eternity of details to explore, with Harry Potter‘s Helena Bonham Carter as our narrating tour guide.

There are times when one might think of the Zapruder film and the fastidious study it’s inspired. To recreate Glenn Kurtz’s fact-finding journey (previously chronicled in his own book, Three Minutes in Poland), Stigter consults with the researchers who helped place the location. A botanist looks to the trees in the background of one image. A historian zooms in on the buttons visible on dresses — an area of study that opens up into a tangent about a factory in Nasielsk that contributed to the haute couture of Europe. A shadow on the sidewalk allows the team to ballpark the time of day and compare that with weather patterns in the area. We’re totally immersed in the effort that went into pinpointing exactly where David Kurtz filmed and when.

Part of the unspeakable tragedy of the Holocaust was that it didn’t just end lives, it effectively erased them.

After Glenn Kurtz successfully solved that mystery, he began the task of trying to put names to the dozens of faces that passed before his grandfather’s lens. One sequence here involves identifying the local grocer by enhancing, desaturating, and deciphering a few blurry frames containing the sign hanging over her establishment. Elsewhere, he relies on the imperfect memories of the mere seven survivors he tracked down, including one elderly man who agreed to be interviewed for the movie. It’s a noble pursuit, this attempt at a retroactive census. Part of the unspeakable tragedy of the Holocaust was that it didn’t just end lives, it effectively erased them. How can we remember the dead after all physical evidence of their existence has disappeared?

Three Minutes - A Lengthening | Exclusive Clip

To that end, the most moving sequence in Three Minutes: A Lengthening is the one that essentially creates a town directory in real time. Stigter freeze frames each face caught on celluloid, and adds them, one by one, to a memorial collage that fills the whole screen. There’s a moral dimension to her decision to depict this tallying process in its entirety over the course of a few minutes. We see the scale of the loss while also acknowledging each individual.

Contrast this moment with the earlier recitation of a document describing the day the German soldiers arrived in Nasielsk — a dispassionately accounted oral history that Stigter sets to a glacial-slow zoom into the town square where the Jewish residents were systematically gathered. By the end of the story, all we can see is indecipherable grain. It becomes a resonant symbol for how the Nazi death machine smeared so much culture and history into an indistinct blur of staggering loss.

The people of Nasielsk stare into the camera.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Stigter knows that there’s no way to get into the heads and hearts of the people of Nasielsk. Even that aforementioned survivor, a very old man who’s now gone too, seems at a loss to offer any insight into what he was feeling a lifetime earlier, during the brief few seconds he was in frame: “I must have been happy,” is all he can muster when asked why the boy he once was is smiling. Three Minutes: A Lengthening pushes past mere memorializing to address the impossibility of truly preserving the past on film. Eventually, Glenn Kurtz acknowledges that even the context he’s provided this fleeting glimpse of neighborhood activity will fade with time, as the world beyond the frame lines disappears from memories and institutional memory.

What Kurtz unwittingly caught on film was the last gasp of a community — a ghost town in the making.

Besides, can those three minutes even be called a true depiction of life in this town at this time? Didn’t David Kurtz’s camera become a distorting element, only capturing proof of its own presence? The footage is haunting all the same. What Kurtz unwittingly caught on film was the last gasp of a community — a ghost town in the making. None of the subjects of his mundane sightseeing survey have any inkling of the horror history will soon inflict upon them, or that their beaming countenances will one day greet strangers wandering a museum. They’re frozen in a time loop of indefinite unawareness, smiling forever on the precipice of what awaits them. That’s true, of course, of anyone you see in still or moving pictures. The camera turns us all into ghosts.

THREE MINUTES - A LENGTHENING [Official Trailer]

Over just 69 minutes, Three Minutes: A Lengthening becomes a gripping act of historical detective work, an exercise in granular film analysis, and finally, a sobering philosophical meditation on cinema as an imperfect window into the past. “Nothing I learned about the people in my grandfather’s film could prevent their deaths,” Glenn Kurtz remarks early on. By the end of Three Minutes: A Lengthening, you begin to understand the title of the film as a statement of impossible purpose: The effort to create an eternal present tense for the residents of Nasielsk, indefinitely delaying the way all their stories must end. There’s great virtue in that goal, even if it’s doomed to fail. One day, only the images of Nasielsk will remain. And then they will disappear, too.

Three Minutes: A Lengthening is now playing in select theaters. For more of A.A. Dowd’s writing, please visit his Authory page.

A.A. Dowd
A.A. Dowd, or Alex to his friends, is a writer and editor based in Chicago. He has held staff positions at The A.V. Club and…
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