AAlthough 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 make so casually now, with the miniature computers we carry in our pockets—bring us even closer to understanding what life was like for our ancestors. That’s why Bianca Stigter’s debut documentary Three minutes: extra time it moves so quietly. The film focuses on a Jewish community in Nasilsk, Poland, in 1938, captured on footage by David Kurtz, who had emigrated from Poland as a child and was visiting from his home in the United States at the time. These three minutes of the film show the townspeople going about their daily business, although many are fascinated by Kurtz’s 16mm camera. Children, in particular, gather around the amateur filmmaker, in some cases running to follow his camera’s gaze. The novelty of the film camera is impossible to resist.
Faced with this vivid record of real life, what is almost impossible to fathom is that in just a few years almost all the people in this film will be killed in holocaust. Stigter has taken this footage – 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.
Still from footage shot by David Kurtz in 1938
The identity of many of these people is unknown: we see them standing at the entrance of a small grocery store, chatting as they pass through the doors of the city’s synagogue, relaxing in one of the city’s cafes. Glenn Kurtz worked hard to track down the survivors but found the task difficult – although one woman who saw the footage recognized the face of her grandfather, Maurice Chandler, who survived using false documents to escape Poland: in the footage of Kurtz, he is a round boy with a simple black hat worn by students in Yeshiva. Stigter traveled to Detroit to interview Chandler, who was able to identify many of the people captured on Kurtz’s camera, filling in details about their lives at the time: a young woman is seen standing behind the man she is engaged to marry ; another, a good-looking kid with a movie-star smile, wears a big, floppy hat that marks him out, Chandler explains, as the kind of boy Chandler’s strict, deeply religious parents wouldn’t want to be associated with. They are all individuals with their own dreams and limitations, their own responsibilities and memories.
The footage captures the Jewish residents of Nasilsk, Poland, before most of them perished in the Holocaust
Stigter was inspired to make this film after reading Glenn Kurtz’s 2014 book. Three minutes in Poland, and after viewing David Kurtz’s footage on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website. (Stigter is married to a filmmaker and video artist Steve McQueen, and has produced several of his films. McQueen is one of the producers of Three minutes: extra time.) She begins by presenting Kurtz’s original three-minute recording in its entirety—but even those short minutes are almost too much to take in at once. The rest of her film allows us to focus on particular details—the lions of Judah that adorn the doors of the town’s synagogue, the sign above the grocery store whose almost illegible letters gradually become a happily solved mystery—that enhance our understanding of life in this small town. The film also provides a voice-over detailing the horrors that befell the city’s Jewish citizens approximately a year after this footage was shot.
But if Stigter’s film is sometimes bleak, it is more often wistfully poetic. Much of Kurtz’s footage is in color and, although faded by time, is still remarkably vivid. Does it take us back in time, or does it momentarily transport the people from Nasielsk ours world? It’s hard to say, but either way Stigter’s film opens a portal between two eras. The people in this movie, most of them long dead, aren’t ghosts—they’re neighbors. And while they walk among us for only a few minutes, their presence is still indelible.
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