Both a tribute to and lament for the Jewish town of Nasielsk, this painstaking doc explores the powers and limits of film and memory
Basing an entire documentary on three minutes of film – and never once cutting away from that film, instead editing within it and picking out new details from each moment – is a bold premise, but one that the specific footage in Bianca Stigter’s Three Minutes: A Lengthening is certainly worthy of. Discovered by Jewish author Glenn Kurtz in a dusty corner of his grandfather’s Florida home, it’s a three minute snapshot of the Polish town of Nasielsk in 1938, a year before the Nazis would arrive and exterminate the Jewish population there.
With a narration from Helena Bonham Carter intercut with comments from Kurtz and testimonies from survivors, Stigter tries to reckon with the magnitude of the film – shot by Kurtz’s grandfather simply as holiday footage (he and his family had come from New York for a tour of Europe that summer). As we learn more of the horrifying specifics of what exactly happened to Nasielsk’s Jews, the random and chaotically enthusiastic compositions of the crowds – filled with excited children and warier adults – take on a more deliberate feel. The fact that the film’s decay has highlighted the reds at the expense of the colours only adds to this, creating extraordinarily evocative and tragic imagery.
The backstory of how Kurtz and various institutions managed to create real historiography from the footage is just as fascinating, from restoring the footage to finding survivors to confirm the precise location of the town. Weather recordings let us know that it was balmy summer’s day, while a survivor suggests that the excitement captured by the camera could have been prompted by a visiting celebrity singer. Even the shop signs, out-of-focus even before the film’s decay, manage to get figured out, assigning particular owners to particular groceries.
As Three Minutes itself states, a simple piece of footage is never going to be enough to restore the lives and worlds that were stolen by the Nazi war machine, but in giving an unexpected voice and insight into a community thought lost, it still feels like a grand historical victory. You can’t give back what violence took away, but you can make sure that everyone knows what you had in the first place, and just how much it mattered.
Three Minutes: A Lengthening is released in UK cinemas and Curzon Home Cinema on 2 December.Where to watch