The Storyville film Three Minutes: A Lengthening (BBC Four) is a combination of historical investigation, documentary and art piece. It is astonishing. It takes as its starting point a short home movie, just over three minutes long, shot in Nasielsk, Poland, in 1938 and discovered in a cupboard in Palm Beach, Florida, in 2009. It is a holiday snapshot of a few moments in time. Children see the lens and act up. A woman fixes her hair. A girl poses while smartly dressed adults walk behind her, trying to seem unaware that they are being filmed.
Although the camera captures them in motion, Nasielsk’s shops, people, streets and synagogue are frozen in time. In 1938, there were 7,000 inhabitants. Of those, 3,000 were Jewish. And of those 3,000 people, only 100 survived the Holocaust.
Bianca Stigter, the director, “lengthens” this clip in many unexpected ways, posing questions as much as she answers them. There is poetic narration from Helena Bonham Carter, which gently nudges the viewer this way or that, as well as voiceovers from characters whose stories are teased out over 69 minutes. Mostly, though, it stands alone as a thought-provoking piece, inviting the viewer to engage with its mysteries.
Glenn Kurtz discovered the film in a state of decay that was perhaps weeks away from being permanent and irreparable. It had been shot by his grandfather, David, who was born in Poland in 1888, but moved to the US aged four. The Kurtz family lived in Brooklyn and began to travel through Europe, capturing footage of the places they visited: Paris, Amsterdam, London.
The first act of lengthening necessitates discovering more about this film. Even the location being shot is unknown, to start with. Perhaps it is the home town of Kurtz’s grandmother. They track down a man who lived there; he doesn’t recognise it. His grandfather’s home town? A photograph of the Lion of Judah, carved on one of the synagogue doors, confirms it.
From there, further fragments and details are examined and pieced together, all of which breathe life into this short, silent clip. They look at the clouds, the direction of the shadows, to discover the time at which it was filmed, and check contemporaneous weather reports to learn that there was a light breeze and warm temperatures. It is eerie and vivid. “In this way, we might succeed in keeping the memory of the dead alive, of remembering them despite the fact that they are dead,” says Glenn Kurtz.
For the overwhelming majority of the film, the only footage we see is that shot by David Kurtz. It rewinds and pauses, zooms in and out, as new details are turned over and investigated. There is a sign over what must be a shop. We can see that it was a grocery shop. But the name beneath that word is so blurry that it can’t be read, even under a microscope. Or can it? Can they work out who owned it and find the name of the woman who appears for the briefest of moments in the background of the children grinning for the camera?
Bonham Carter narrates meditations on the nature of remembering. Often, we remember people by their names. Here, when there is not always the ability to do so, we might memorialise them by image. (Watch the credits for a lovely, simple nod to this idea.)
After the Kurtzes’ film was discovered, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum restored the footage and put it on its website. Two years later, a man named Maurice Chandler recognised himself as one of the boys in it. His testimony enriches the story again. He names a friend, establishes that a woman is the mother of a girl with braids.
What looms, of course, is what happened next. “I felt very comfortable in this society,” he says, of life in Nasielsk in 1938. He adds that if someone had told him what was to come, he simply wouldn’t have believed them. In December 1939, the Jewish inhabitants were brutally, violently rounded up and sent to various ghettoes, before being taken to Treblinka and murdered.
There are more than 150 people in David Kurtz’s original film. Three Minutes: A Lengthening cannot possibly name them all, cannot possibly inform us, 85 years later, of the lives they were living. It is aware of its limitations and is all the more powerful for it. Some of the footage is grainy; some is clearer, after its restoration. “Does it bring them closer to you?” asks the voice of Bonham Carter.
The way this ends – the film, but also the history – is devastating. The three-minute clip, which we have seen again and again, backwards and forwards, as if stuck, or fixed, moves on to the next frame, to another place, as time lurches on.