The long take: a memorial to the dead, bursting with life

How haunting footage from a holiday in 1938 became a private monument to the Holocaust.

Three Minutes: A Lengthening (2021)

In 1938, David and Lisa Kurtz, a well-to-do couple living in Brooklyn, took a holiday to Europe. They made the ‘grand tour’ equipped with a brand-new 16mm movie camera to record their adventures. Eighty-one years later their grandson, Glenn Kurtz, discovered the silent Kodachrome colour film that his grandfather made of the trip, decomposing in a cupboard.

In between the tourist hotspots of Paris, London, Geneva, the Kurtzes had visited a small town in Poland, which is unidentified in the home movie. And it is the footage of this visit, just three minutes of crowd scenes, that captivated Glenn. We’ve all seen pictures of the Eiffel Tower. But how many people now living have had the privilege to see the faces of these people, chasing the tourists’ shiny camera as it pans around the market square? To be charmed by the faces of children and smiling men and woman, as fascinated by the camera as we are now by these faces from history? David Kurtz, his grandson thinks, was trying to take pictures of the buildings, but the local children bounced into the frame, so he gave in to their demands to play a game of movie stars, and lowered his lens to their level.

Three Minutes: A Lengthening (2022)

Anyone who has watched a few archive films, especially amateur travelogues or actualities, will have encountered one or two of those particularly indelible faces that distract from the main event – a face in the crowd far more compelling than the procession passing by. It is all too easy to become first engrossed, and then obsessed. Because of its historical context, this footage is made up entirely of such faces. In these pages, in 1955, Carl Theodor Dreyer wrote: “Nothing in the world can be compared to the human face. It is a land one can never tire of exploring.” We can apply his words to his exquisite closeups, to the tears falling down Renée Maria Falconetti’s face in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). Such artistry is not essential, however. The unrehearsed faces here, filmed by an amateur, demand our attention.

The people in David Kurtz’s holiday film are all Jews, and Glenn was to discover that the town was Nasielsk, his grandfather’s birthplace, 30 miles north of Warsaw. A year after the film was made, the town was occupied by the Nazis. Terrible things happened on that market square, and terrible things were done to the children and adults in the film. As the narration to a new documentary about the footage puts it: “These three minutes of life were taken out of the flow of time.”

This film accidentally became a private memorial to a dreadful atrocity – a portal through time that reveals the life that was destroyed by the brutality of the Holocaust. The smiles and giggles, the brightly printed dresses, the little girl with braids who chases the camera around the square, hoping to be photographed as often as possible. The desire of the people of Nasielsk to be immortalised on film in 1938 is far beyond poignant. Most memorials have names, dates and places. At first, this had none. So Glenn decided to uncover the stories of the people in this film. He conducted archaeology via the cinema screen and published the results in a 2014 book, Three Minutes in Poland: Discovering a Lost World in a 1938 Family Film. Now his investigation has also been made into a film, directed by Bianca Stigter and narrated by Helena Bonham Carter, called Three Minutes: A Lengthening.

Three Minutes: A Lengthening (2022)

In the film we watch the footage, newly restored, as we listen to the stories that Glenn drew out of it. It plays in silence, is rewound, or dissected and stitched into a panorama of the town, or assembled into a collage of portraits: “Faces as traces.” The clip is now not just longer but richer than before, weighed down with knowledge, but lifted up by the care that has been taken over the footage, and the people who were filmed in the sunshine that day.

What can you learn from three minutes of smiling faces? Glenn examined everything from the shadows on the walls to the buttons on the women’s dresses (which alone tell a tale that will make you catch your breath). After patient detective work, even indistinct lettering on a shop sign yielded its secrets. The crowd is diverse to some degree: the novelty of the camera’s appearance collapsed the special order. But there are very few Orthodox Jews in the footage – they wouldn’t agree to be photographed. One of the boys in the film escaped Poland with false papers, and he was able to identify many of the other people in the film, who weren’t so lucky. His memories are precious, not least because they bring a tangible sense of history to these fleeting images – just as in return, these scenes give a human, and a poetic, dimension to the documentary record of what the Nazis did in Nasielsk.

David Kurtz wanted only to make a souvenir of his hometown, but he created a monument of huge significance. This new film allows us to see the footage both ways – a memorial to the dead, bursting with life.

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