If you are in the mood to see a film about a Jewish family coping with the death of a loved one, then there is, believe it or not, a documentary alternative to This Is Where I Leave You that falls under that extremely specific set of parameters. Granted, that premise is pretty much all that The Flat shares with the new drama, but it is by any metric a more interesting use of one’s time. The most consensus on This Is Where I Leave You is that it wastes a good cast on standard faux-indie story tropes. The Flat, meanwhile, goes nowhere the viewer expects it to.
After the death of his grandmother, director Arnon Goldfinger set to cleaning out the Tel Aviv flat in which she lived for more than 70 years. It was in the midst of this cleaning that Goldfinger and his family discovered some stowed-away documents that baffled them. Goldfinger’s grandmother and grandfather had fled Germany to escape its persecution of Jews ahead of the instigation of the Holocaust. But the two had remained in contact with an old friend, both during and long after the war. This friend was a high-ranking Nazi official. Goldfinger documented his long quest to figure out just what had happened all those years ago, and this film is the result.
The Flat is about how our thirst to understand the ungraspables of the past runs up against their inherent impenetrability. The Holocaust itself could be said to be such an ungraspable. No one has ever satisfactorily explained how such atrocity on a sustained, mass scale was permitted to happen. Those who experienced these events firsthand die off every day, and quite soon, none of them will remain. We’ll see a drastically changed approach to how the Holocaust is depicted in pop culture after that. The past is as fluid as whoever’s telling it, and there are now far more people who understand this history from books and movies than from witnessing and living through it.
Goldfinger wants to understand how his grandparents could remain on friendly terms with a man who was an active part of the regime that persecuted them. But the best he can do is reconstruct from photographs and letters and the scattered recollections of people who only ever heard slightly less scattered recollections. And some of those accounts are biased. Goldfinger meets the daughter of the Nazi, and she’s heavily invested in the idea that her father had never committed any wrong. It’s said that it’s difficult to find anyone in Germany willing to admit that their parents or grandparents were Nazis — the way the descendants tell it, the whole country was full of objectors and resistors.
The Flat is an impassioned interrogation of family history, one that by its very nature can’t produce any fully satisfactory results. Over the course of the film, the old flat is gradually divested of its furnishings, but the progress in uncovering the lives of the people who owned it is much more muddled. This Is Where I Leave You uses Jewish tradition (specifically, the practice of sitting shiva) as an excuse for its premise. The Flat actually engages with recent Jewish history, in a way that dovetails well with the inquiring philosophy of Jewish thought. The answers might not be definitive, but the important part is the pursuit.
The Flat is available to stream on Amazon.