‘The Flat’ Director Arnon Goldfinger: Family Stories Keep Holocaust History Alive

How one grandmother’s revelations can pass collective memories along to the future.

Arnon Goldfinger and Edda von Mildenstein look through papers in a scene from The Flat

Filmmaker Arnon Goldfinger and Edda von Mildenstein look back in their families' history to discover a surprising relationship in the new documentary The Flat. (Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Selects)

Stephen Saito writes about movies for the L.A. Times, IFC.com and his own site, The Moveable Fest.

When Arnon Goldfinger’s grandmother passed away at 98, the Israeli film director and scriptwriter immediately knew he had to go to her apartment—or flat as the residence is called in Tel Aviv—and capture the place he had cherished so much as a child.

Goldfinger needed to “get ahold of this before it will go away.”

In a way, the resulting feature The Flat, which opens in theaters this week and is available on video-on-demand, is a testament to Goldfinger’s late grandmother Gerda’s affinity for archiving. A sense of her beloved hometown of Berlin lingers in her adopted home on shelves stacked with knickknacks. Gerda took up residence in Tel Aviv when the Nazis took power in Germany.

MORE: Holocaust Remembrance Day Is More Important Every Year

Amid the hundreds of gloves and handbags that Goldfinger, his mother and other relatives sift through while clearing the apartment for sale, the filmmaker discovers artifacts that hint at a friendship between his grandparents and another German family, the von Mildensteins. The relationship spanned the entirety of World War II. The filmmaker believed it could help him understand shadowed events in his family that no one ever discussed.

“The fact that people didn’t speak or didn’t ask questions, it builds an emotional wall. What matters is when you start to communicate about it.”

“The motivation of this film is, if you think about it, pretty absurd,” Goldfinger tells TakePart. “It’s just after my grandmother died, which means the main witness disappeared, and only then I could start asking questions; so there’s this tension [of] my urge to document, to find any kind of piece of information, and on the other hand, the knowledge that you will never get the whole picture.”

And yet The Flat does reveal a bigger picture, evolving into a story encompassing far more than the life’s narrative of Goldfinger’s grandmother—or even of his family as a whole. In his quest to uncover his family’s blanketed secrets, Goldfinger discovers how quickly history can be erased if no one is inclined to preserve it, even in the case of such large-scale atrocities as the Holocaust.

While part of the film’s allure is in what its director calls the film’s “crazy detective story,” which shouldn’t be spoiled by a detailed description here, Goldfinger was more invigorated by the opportunity to open up dialogues among his own relatives, and extending those dialogues to descendants of the Germans who may have placed his family in peril during the war.   

“The fact that people didn’t speak or didn’t ask questions, it builds an emotional wall,” says Goldfinger. “What matters is when you start to communicate about it.”

Goldfinger reports that his family is more open in their discussions since the film has been completed. He hopes The Flat will inspire others to inquire about their past. Ultimately, family histories have immense bearing on the present.

“It’s a very personal story that reflects historical issues, but also universal issues,” says Goldfinger. “On the surface, there’s this extreme story of my grandparents, but it reflects many families [who may] start asking about themselves, ‘What do I know about my family? What do I know about my parents? What did I tell my children?’ So it’s not just the history; it’s also the universal questions.”

What questions do you want to ask your grandparents? Stoke your curiosities in COMMENTS.

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