With “Three Minutes – A Lengthening”, Bianca Stigter has given us one of the most compelling documentaries of 2022. The film centers on three minutes of 16mm home movie footage from 1938, shot in the Jewish neighborhood of Nasielsk, Poland. These three brief minutes are full of smiles, joy, and laughter as members of this lively Jewish community enjoy the attention of the camera. But in a few short months, most of the people in the footage would be gone – victims of Nazi Germany’s systematic genocide of European Jews.
The weight of that truth hangs over “Three Minutes – A Lengthening”. Stigter’s approach makes sure it’s etched into our minds. At the same time, this isn’t a film solely fixated on the horrors that befell this community. It’s far more about memorializing them by piecing together these few fragments of their lives preserved on the film. It’s an effort to remember them; to let their lives speak beyond the abhorrent atrocities they faced at the hands of their barbaric oppressors. And while identifying the people proved mostly impossible, Stigter honors them through her deep reverence and forensic precision.
Stigter begins by playing the full video uninterrupted, without narration or voice-over of any kind. All we hear is the sound of the film running through a 16mm projector. It’s a sobering three minutes. I watched this opening three times before continuing the movie, and in that time several noticeable faces stuck with me. The old bearded gentleman leaning up against the wall. The rambunctious lad sticking his tongue out at the camera. The two manly chaps standing stoically on the left side of the frame. The young girl in a pale red dress with a well-combed bob and a big smile. And several others. I immediately started wondering about them. Who were they? What were their stories? And sadly, were they among the very few who survived?
From there the movie chronicles the search for answers about the town and the people we see. Interestingly, the movie never strays from the actual footage itself. We never see the narrator (a superb Helena Bonham Carter) nor do we see the small handful of contributors. We simply hear their voices as we continually watch those solemn three minutes. But it’s not in a continual loop. Stigter freezes frames, rewinds clips, zooms in on details, etc., all in her efforts to glean whatever information she can. Often that requires examining every inch of the frame: the door posts, the trees, the clothing patterns and fabrics. It all helps paint a clearer picture of the community.
A key voice in the film is that of Glenn Kurtz, the man who discovered the three-minute celluloid in a closet in Florida. Nearly aged passed the point of saving, Glenn donated the film to U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum where it was restored and digitized. Over time we learn the film was shot by his grandfather, an American named David Kurtz, who in 1938 took a trip to Europe. After stops in Paris, London, Amsterdam, and Geneva (among other places), David took a detour to Poland to visit his hometown of Nasielsk.
We learn that Nasielsk, some 30 miles north of Warsaw, is where David Kurtz shot the eponymous three minutes of footage. In 1938, Nasielsk had a population of 7,000 of whom 3000 were Jews. But by 1942, less than 100 of the town’s Jewish population would be alive. The deportation of the Nasielsk Jews is shared in a grim and stomach-churning eyewitness account. It adds even more potency to the three minutes of film we’ve come to intimately know by that point in the movie.
While watching “Three Minutes – A Lengthening” you can’t help but notice its nods to the power of filmmaking, the importance of historical research, and the unequaled treasure of memory. All of those things are profoundly realized throughout the film’s compact 111 minutes. But the people on that small 16mm reel are always the centerpiece. Stigner never loses sight of that, and as a result we don’t lose sight of it either. “Three Minutes – A Lengthening” is out now in select theaters.