By Jay Kuehner
Perhaps not since José Luis Guerin’s Tren des Sombres (1997) has a film so exactingly interrogated its source—in the case of Bianca Stigter’s documentary, a short 16mm reel discovered in a Florida attic in 2008 by the maker’s grandson, Glenn Kurtz. The eponymous three minutes of holiday footage (shot in the Polish town of Nasielsk circa 1938) we’re shown at the film’s beginning are seemingly unrevealing to the distant observer: degraded by time, diminished by the wages of history, and insularly random rather than historically universal.
For Kurtz, however, tracing the evidential ancestry of his grandfather—a Polish Jew who emigrated to New York at age four, and returned as an adult to his birthplace armed with a new movie camera—becomes impossibly weighted with revelation. The decomposing, nearly extinct celluloid is rescued (after Kurtz submits the footage to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum for restoration) and prompts director Stigter’s “lengthening,” which performs a ruminative exhumation and a devastating elegy on behalf of the anonymous villagers captured in the reel, who are seen excitedly vying for the attention of the then-novel camera and possibly gathering for a concert. Or so surmises one of the film’s few known survivors, Maurice Chandler (née Moszek Tuchendler), now 90, who is identified by his granddaughter after the footage went live. His voice grounds the speculative intonation of Stigter’s thesis (glossed by the narration of Helena Bonham Carter) and parses historical details that would otherwise be lost on even the most determined of gazes, such as revealing how the cap worn by the yeshiva boys is no mere cap.
Thus, both the materiality of the image and its nominal contents are subject to review in this take on analog forensics. The decorative lion of Judah on a synagogue door (later removed during riots); an illegible sign above a grocer’s shop (finally decoded); the precious buttons on the denizens’ coats (made in a local factory that would be taken over by the Nazis); and the vestiges of the colour red (the last to fade from the frame’s patina) all become conspicuous markers in relation to an unknown, and mostly unknowable, collective identity. The imminent deportation of the village’s Jewry to Treblinka and various ghettos is of course the haunting fate of this tale foretold, but one that is vested with a sustained memorial power by virtue of the filmmaker’s persistent vigilance. The fate can not be halted, but such a lengthening, temporal in nature, might extend the remembrance. There would be no poetry after such pogroms, but there might be something yet of the films from before.