Although photographs are among the most useful tools we have to remind ourselves that the recent past was populated by living, breathing people just like us, they do have their limits. Moving pictures—the ones most of us now make so casually, with the miniature computers we carry around in our pockets—bring us even closer to understanding what the lives of our forebears were like. That’s why Bianca Stigter’s debut documentary Three Minutes: A Lengthening is so quietly moving. The film focuses on a Jewish community in Nasielsk, Poland, in 1938, captured in footage by David Kurtz, who had emigrated from Poland as a child and was at the time visiting from his home in the United States. These three minutes of film show the town’s inhabitants going about their daily business, even as many of them are entranced by Kurtz’s 16mm camera. The children, in particular, gather around the amateur filmmaker, in some cases running to keep up with his camera’s gaze. The novelty of a movie camera is impossible to resist.
Faced with this vibrant record of real life, what’s almost impossible to comprehend is that in just a few years’ time, nearly all of the people in this film will have been murdered in the Holocaust. Stigter has taken this footage—which was discovered by Kurtz’s grandson, Glenn Kurtz, in 2009—and expanded it into a visual essay, narrated by Helena Bonham Carter, exploring the ways in which moving images can bring the past into the present, connecting us with human beings whose time on Earth was brutally cut short.
The identities of many of these people aren’t known: we see them standing at the entrance of a small grocery store, chatting as they stream through the doors of the town’s synagogue, relaxing inside one of the town’s cafés. Glenn Kurtz worked hard to locate survivors, but found the task difficult—though one woman who saw the footage did recognize the face of her grandfather, Maurice Chandler, who had survived by using false papers to escape Poland: in Kurtz’s footage, he’s a round-faced boy in the simple black cap worn by the Yeshiva students. Stigter traveled to Detroit to interview Chandler, who was able to identify many of the people captured by Kurtz’s camera, filling in details about their lives at the time: one young woman is seen standing behind the man she’s engaged to marry; another, a good-looking kid with a movie-star grin, wears a large, floppy cap that marks him, Chandler explains, as the sort of boy Chandler’s strict, intensely religious parents wouldn’t want him to associate with. These are all individuals, with their own dreams and restrictions, their own responsibilities and memories.
Stigter was inspired to make this film after reading Glenn Kurtz’s 2014 book, Three Minutes in Poland, and after watching David Kurtz’s footage on the website of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. (Stigter is married to filmmaker and video artist Steve McQueen, and has been a producer on several of his films. McQueen is one of the producers of Three Minutes: A Lengthening.) She begins by presenting Kurtz’s original three minutes of footage in its entirety—but even those brief minutes are almost too much to absorb at once. The rest of her film allows us to focus on specific details—the lions of Judah that grace the doors of the town’s synagogue, the sign above the grocery store, whose almost unreadable letters gradually become a happily solved mystery—that enhance our understanding of life in this little town. The film also details, in voiceover, the horrors that befell the town’s Jewish citizens roughly a year after this footage was captured.
But if Stigter’s film is at times somber, it’s more often ruefully poetic. Much of Kurtz’s footage is in color, and even though it has faded with time, it’s still remarkably vivid. Does it whisk us back in time, or does it momentarily transport the people of Nasielsk into our world? That’s hard to say, but either way Stigter’s film opens a portal between two eras. The people in this film, most of them long dead, aren’t ghosts—they’re neighbors. And while they walk among us only for a few minutes, their presence is indelible just the same.
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