By Elias Savada.

Not your conventional Holocaust documentary…. Fragments get incessantly replayed, slowed down, reversed, enlarged, and otherwise altered to sniff out clues and provide context, sometimes agonizingly so.”

This genealogical gumshoe of a documentary starts with three-plus minutes of silent home movie footage, accompanied only by the sound of a movie projector, the clickity-clack soundtrack providing the appropriate backdrop to the material’s analog origins. Three Minutes: A Lengthening is not your conventional Holocaust documentary. These opening moments show the people of the Polish village Nasielsk, filmed in 1938 when David Kurtz, who left the town for America as a child in the 1880s, made a return visit as a tourist to the enclave of then 7,000 inhabitants (nearly half of them Jewish) with his family. His 16mm film (extracted from the 14-minute family film Our Trip to Holland, Belgium, Poland, Switzerland, France and England, 1938), some in color, has now become one of the few surviving moving images of Polish towns with Jewish identities (and the only film of this particular town) that survived World War II, with fewer than 100 of the town’s Jews surviving the Holocaust.

As partly told by Glenn Kurtz, David’s grandson (and “informed” from his 2014 book Three Minutes in Poland. Discovering a Lost World in a 1938 Family Film), who discovered the film in 2009 in a closet at his parent’s Florida house, shrunken and curled and otherwise maligned from improper storage, raised his curiosity. It was restored courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum at Colorlab (a wonderful preservation facility in Rockville, Maryland, coincidentally where about 40 hours of my father’s 8mm home movies were likewise salvaged). For the archivist in me, I understand the complications that can arise as film decays.

Fragments get incessantly replayed, slowed down, reversed, enlarged, and otherwise altered to sniff out clues and provide context, sometimes agonizingly so. This is particularly poignant when the audio recites hidden testimony from Emanuel Ringelbaum about the December 1939 torture and deportation of the towns Jews. Amateur and professional detective work ensues. As Kurtz (and Helen Bonham Carter, the co-narrator) nonchalantly talk about other visual pointers, Bianca Stigter, the film’s rookie Dutch director (also an historian and culture critic whose husband, Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave) is one of the film’s producers), matches up the footage (and only the footage) to drive home her unique methodology. For genealogists like myself, it’s like listening to an episode of Who Do You Think You Are? but watching only one piece of the puzzle, over and over again.

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Sometimes the commentary gets quite technical (fine by me) as it turns to color and saturation, emulsion and gelatin; 16mm film so old often suffers from something called vinegar syndrome. It’s not a pleasant odor. And the film gets downright meticulous when Carter talks about trees captured in the footage. Linden trees. Grandfather Kurtz sent a postcard featuring some of those trees to his children in Brooklyn in the summer of 1938. More clues.

Two years after he donated the film to the USHMM it was put up on the museum website. A woman in Detroit recognized her grandfather — as a 13-year-old child. Maurice Chandler (then known as Moszek Tuchendler) provides his own historical perspective and some marvelous anecdotes, especially about buttons made in the town, and caps worn by the boys. And how the town was so excited that everyone were now “movie stars.” Some more names are remembered.

Historians, researchers, and even Yiddish lip readers chime in. Yet the visual remains the lengthened three minutes – only occasionally offering some additional onscreen graphic when trying to figure out letters in a grocery store sign – a most unusual yet surprisingly effective technique.

Of the seven townspeople still living in 2012, only Chandler discusses his childhood experiences on the soundtrack, although Kurtz mentioned that Faiga Milchberg-Tick was another survivor appearing in the film (she doesn’t). Eleven survivors in total are eventually identified.

As the film nears the end its short 72-minute running time, the old footage morphs for a few seconds into a 3-D model of the town square, trying to expand our vision of the pre-war town. Carter muses, perhaps a helpful way to study history?

Mournfully absorbing and providing more than a few goosebump moments, Three Minutes: A Lengthening is quietly helped by the ambient, melancholic score by Wilko Sterke.

What the film neglects is minimal, but for anyone with roots in Nasielsk, I recommend connecting to the town’s JewishGen.org Communities Database entry; there are 200 JewishGen Family Finder listings and other important references, so it’s possible that some of the ancestors might be quite interested in this film.

The film has been in limited release since August and is available to rent or buy on most major streaming platforms.

Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).

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