Three Minutes: A Lengthening: Restoration, by David Bax
It’s only at the very beginning of Bianca Stigter‘s Three Minutes: A Lengthening that we actually watch the whole three minutes in question–footage shot by a vacationing American in Europe in 1938 on a Cine-Kodak Magazine–in full and without breaks, helpfully accompanied by the simulated sound of film running through a camera. After that, the footage is rearranged, abstracted, zoomed in on and in many other ways explored and recontextualized. But it’s still all we see. Stigter’s full length documentary consists entirely, from a visual standpoint, of that initial three minutes of film.
This footage was shot by a man named David Kurtz, who had long since passed away when his grandson, Glenn Kurtz, rediscovered it. The early part of Three Minutes details the detective work the younger Kurtz undertook to find out what he was looking at. Poland? Yes. Warsaw? No. After a trip down a blind alley, Kurtz eventually confirms via relatives of those depicted and even some of them who were still alive that the footage–depicting crowds of adults and children smiling, waving and jockeying for position in front of the camera–was taken in the small town of Nasielsk, whose sizable Jewish population was dispersed and, in most cases, murdered by the Nazis only a few years later.
That knowledges gives Three Minutes: A Lengthening, in literary terms, a dramatic irony. But describing it as such feels wrong twice over. First because these are all real people, not characters in a play or novel. But second because Stigter, by refusing to let us look at anything other than the same three minutes, is encouraging us to consider the cinematic, not literary, result of the distance between us and those depicted. The footage is unchanged (though cleaned up) but the fundamental meaning of the images has been altered by the events of the intervening years and our knowledge of them. No one on screen looks sad yet a sadder collection of faces is hard to imagine.
In this way, Three Minutes: A Lengthening can be seen as, among its many other traits, a testament to the power of amateur cinematography and a case for the preservation of home movies and other hobbyist works. The importance of motion pictures to our understanding of the world doesn’t end with intentional artists and documentarians.
Three Minutes: A Lengthening is also, in its own way, a testament to the power of the human voice. Aside from the artificial camera sound, that’s all we have to accompany us on our deep dive into this indelible fragment of history. From outsider experts like Glenn Kurtz to an elderly survivor who spots himself in the footage to the professional narration by Helena Bonham Carter, every voice leaves its own distinct mark. As do we all.