In 1938, David Kurtz traveled from New York to Europe with his wife and three friends. Their gallivanting lasted six weeks and involved sightseeing in numerous countries: Holland and France, Belgium and England, Switzerland and Poland. Equipped with a brand new 16mm camera, Kurtz shot 14 minutes of black-and-white and Kodachrome color film, three of which were of a small, predominantly Jewish town in Poland called Nasielsk. Bianca Stigter’s Three Minutes — A Lengthening begins with this exact footage, and no sound is heard beyond the hum of a projector. The images are incredibly ordinary: everyday people out in the streets, many of whom are excited by the novelty of a camera, which is no different than what’s seen in several other films from the early 20th century. After these scenes end, it’s revealed that this is more than documentation of a fun vacation; it’s some of the only existing footage of one of many Polish towns destroyed in the Holocaust.
Glenn Kurtz, the grandson of the amateur filmmaker who captured these important images, is the reason Stigter’s documentary exists. The similarly titled Three Minutes in Poland, a book published in 2014, details the painstaking and inspiring trek that led to the revelations also unveiled in this documentary. We learn the names of specific people onscreen, of the text written on a grocery store sign, of the types of trees lining the town’s cobblestone streets. Hats signify specific social statuses, and the coat buttons come from a local, successful factory. Every detail of the film is put under a microscope, and every trail is followed until an ostensible dead end is reached. Despite the inclusion of audio interviews, Stigter makes the crucial decision to source the entirety of the film’s images on the titular three minutes. Indeed, a “lengthening” is exactly what occurs: she zooms in on specific parts of a frame, repeats certain scenes, and pauses on specific moments for emphasis. This reduced visual palette keeps us in the same mindset as when Glenn Kurtz was unearthing this information, but also keeps the focus on the people in this town, making it feel as alive as possible; a cut to a talking head would’ve been disruptive if not outright disrespectful.
Three Minutes is a film that succeeds simply because of its source material. The story here is miraculous in more ways than one: the discovered footage would’ve been impossible to preserve had it been found even a month later, and the fact a random person was able to identify an ancestor after viewing the video when posted online is remarkable. There’s little sense of the film feeling like a mystery to be solved, though; it’s far too cut-and-dry in presentation to be more than mere storytelling. This is ultimately fine as the repeated viewing of these limited images goes hand in hand with the reality of loss that permeates the film. The most harrowing passage involves an account of the Nazis coming to Nasielsk, whipping the Jewish people, holding them in the synagogue, and forcing them on trains that would lead them to Treblinka. That all we see is a slow zoom-in on the town square where part of this took place is enough, albeit less impactful as a visual accompaniment than is intended. Still, this is nowhere as misguided as when the film waxes poetic or philosophical. The most befuddling moment involves a knowingly manufactured dialogue between narrator Helena Bonham Carter and Glenn Kurtz; it overexplains implicit ideas about the three-minute film and our experience of it. Even odder is how brief these instances are, feeling puddle-deep in their explorations as to render them superfluous. The upside is that they never steer the film off its core focus: Three Minutes ultimately serves as an adept filmic take on the book it’s informed by, functioning as an important, loving memorial.
Published as part of DOC NYC 2021 — Dispatch 2.