In 2009, Glenn Kurtz discovered the film reel in a corner of his parents’ closet in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, and took it home with him. A damaged metal container contained the substance.
The heat and humidity of Florida had practically frozen the celluloid into a lump “the size of a hockey puck,” according to Kurtz. In the 1980s, someone had put a portion of it onto a VHS video, allowing Kurtz to see what it contained: a home movie titled “Our Trip to Holland, Belgium, Poland, Switzerland, France, and England, 1938,” which had been converted onto a VHS cassette.
It included the Alps, lovely Dutch towns, and three minutes of video depicting a thriving Jewish community in a Polish town. The 16-millimeter film was shot by his grandpa, David Kurtz, on the eve of World War II.
Old guys with yarmulkes, thin youngsters with baseball hats, and females with long braids are all represented. Smiling and making light of the situation. There is a steady stream of people passing through the synagogue’s huge doors. It all starts with some pushing at a café, and suddenly it’s over. The footage comes to an abrupt conclusion.
Although Kurtz didn’t realise it, he realised how important the material was as a record of Jewish life in Poland right before the Holocaust. It would take him about a year to figure it out, but he eventually determined that the film portrayed Nasielsk, his grandfather’s birthplace, which is located about 30 miles northwest of Warsaw and was home to around 3,000 Jews prior to World War II.
Using this incomplete, fleeting material, Dutch director Bianca Stigter has created “Three Minutes: A Lengthening,” a 70-minute feature film that contributes to a better understanding of what and who was lost.
According to Stigter, in an interview conducted recently in Amsterdam, “It’s remarkable how much it delivers from such a tiny bit of film.” It always seems to me to be something new and different every time I look at it. “I’m sure I’ve watched it hundreds and thousands of times, but there’s always a little detail that I’ve missed the first time around.”
“We were well aware that it was one-of-a-kind,” said Leslie Swift, director of the museum’s film, oral history, and recorded sound section. We wanted the original film, so I immediately contacted him and said, “If you have the original film, that is what we want.”
The Holocaust Museum was able to preserve and digitise the video, and it has made the material available on its website for public viewing. At the time, Kurtz had no idea where the film had been filmed, nor did he know the identities of any of the individuals who had gathered in the town square for the shooting. During his grandfather’s early childhood, he travelled from Poland to the United States, but died before he could be born.
After that, Kurtz embarked on a four-year investigation that culminated in the publication of a renowned book, “Three Minutes in Poland: Discovering a Lost World in a 1938 Family Film,” by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux in 2014.
When it came to finishing the film, Stigter relied on the book, which was co-produced by her husband, Steve McQueen, the British artist and Academy Award-winning filmmaker of “12 Years a Slave.” The film is narrated by Helena Bonham Carter and co-produced by Steve McQueen. A number of documentary festivals have screened it, including the Giornate degli Autori, an independent film festival held in parallel with the Venice Film Festival, as well as other festivals such as the Toronto International Film Festival, the Telluride Film Festival, the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, and the Documentary Film Festival of New York City. It was just chosen for the Sundance Film Festival, which will take place this month.
A great deal had already been uncovered by Kurtz, an author and journalist, via his own study, but Stigter was instrumental in solving some further puzzles. He couldn’t see the name on a grocery shop sign since it was too hazy to make out what it was saying. Stigter was able to track down a Polish researcher who was able to determine the woman’s name, which provided a probable indication as to her identity as she stood in the doorway.
She said that the David Kurtz footage is one of the “most frequently requested films” from the Holocaust Museum’s moving picture archives, but that it is most often used as stock footage, or background imagery by documentary filmmakers to depict prewar Jewish life in Poland “in a generic way,” according to Leslie Swift, the museum’s director of moving picture archives.
Kurtz’s book, on the other hand, as well as Stigter’s documentary, do is investigate the material itself in order to answer the question “What am I seeing?” again, she said. They are able to restore humanity and personality to this society by recognising individuals and specific elements of their daily lives.