Although photographs can be a very useful tool, we need to remember that they are not perfect. 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: An Enlightening ExperienceThis film is so quiet but powerful. This film is about a Jewish community living in Nasielsk in Poland in 1938. It was shot by David Kurtz who was visiting the United States from Poland when he was a kid. 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. A movie camera’s novelty is too irresistible.
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.
Continue reading: The Holocaust: What Can We Learn From the Last Survivors?
An image taken from film by David Kurtz, 1938.
Family Affair Films
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. All of these people are individuals with their own goals and limitations, as well as their own memories and responsibilities.
This footage shows the Jewish residents of Nasielsk in Poland, before the Holocaust.
Family Affair Films
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Stigter was inspired to make this film after reading Glenn Kurtz’s 2014 book, Take Three Minutes to Explore Poland and after watching David Kurtz’s footage on the website of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. (Stigter, who has worked as a producer for several of Steve McQueen’s films, is married to Steve McQueen. McQueen is also one of McQueen’s producers. Three Minutes of Length:) 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. It can transport us to another time or takes us temporarily into Nasielsk. 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. Although they may only be present for a brief time, their presence in our lives is permanent.
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