Insisting Upon Himself, by David Bax
Whether a documentary is taking on a topic as broad as American fast food or as personal as a family’s history before, during and since the Holocaust, it’s always a tricky proposition when the director decides to place himself in front of the camera as well as behind it. Such an approach can obscure the true subject of the film by making it seem to firstly be a self-indulgent vanity project. That’s not to say the tactic never works. When it does, though, it’s usually because the filmmaker is a dynamic and engaging personality. Arnon Goldfinger, whose new film The Flat offers remarkable pontifications on the relationship between the past and the present, is unfortunately not that.
When Goldfinger’s grandmother died, he started documenting the efforts of the family to sift through her Tel Aviv apartment, deciding what to keep and what to discard. There he uncovered the remnants of a friendship between his grandparents and a married German couple named Mildenstein, the male half of which was a highly placed Nazi who may have worked closely with Goebbels. Goldfinger’s search for more information – through interviews with his extended family as well as with the descendants of the Mildensteins – defines the structure of the film.
Like many documentarians, perhaps, Goldfinger has an uncomplicated and objectifying relationship with the truth. To him, it exists and it is finite and knowable. To his increased frustration, however, he repeatedly finds that many others have chosen not to be so direct. These people seem to understand – whether consciously or not – that to any individual, the truth is only as true as we know it to be. Furthermore, with enough willpower and motivation, we can decide for ourselves what we know and what we don’t, cementing convictions from the loose debris of the past. This is the case, Goldfinger discovers, with both people and nations.
Lest one give the impression that Goldfinger is some cold machine, his feelings on sentimentality – though also quite straightforward – are endearingly passionate. As an artist, he believes that the surrender of oneself to emotion (be it elation, grief, or any number of things in between and beyond) is a step toward a healing catharsis. He believes in these experiences as an absolute necessity. Be he right or wrong, however, the process of feeling can be a very painful one. Many would prefer to keep it at bay rather than find out what’s on the other side of it. In one of the film’s most awkward but memorable scenes, Goldfinger goes with his mother to visit a relative’s grave and end ups scolding her for not being sad enough.
Of course, that brings us back to the film’s main problem, which is Goldfinger the subject (as opposed to Goldfinger the filmmaker). His difficulties relating to others manifest themselves in a stilted presence. It’s tempting to wonder if his interviewees’ reluctance to open up is due to their own inner struggles or simply to how uncomfortable the director makes them. And since he has chosen to make himself such a large part of the narrative, the audience begins to feel that discomfort as well.
In the battle between the film’s fascinating questions and its unpleasant auteur, the latter unfortunately wins. Still, The Flat will make many ponder how much they really know and, more than that, how much they want to.