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'The Flat' reveals German family's secrets from a forgotten past

By Moira Macdonald

Seattle Times

Published: Saturday, Dec. 15 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

Arnon Goldfinger and Edda von Mildenstein in "The Flat."

Zero One Film

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"THE FLAT" — ★★★ — A documentary directed by Arnon Goldfinger that tells the story of a German family discovering its past by exploring the apartment of a relative who has recently died; in English, German, and Hebrew, with subtitles; not rated but probable G (no objectionable material); Broadway

"The Flat" is a story of family and of the secrets that younger generations may never understand.

At its beginning, filmmaker/narrator Arnon Goldfinger tells us his 98-year-old grandmother, a Jew who immigrated from Nazi Germany to Tel Aviv in the 1930s, has died, and that the family has assembled to clear out her longtime apartment.

The camera, sweeping through the spacious, quiet flat, shows us what remains of a long life: walls covered in paintings and books; mountains of gloves (you can almost smell their faint perfume) and handbags; endless boxes of letters, bills and photographs. (Grandmother Gerda, we quickly learn, wasn't one for throwing things out.)

Goldfinger, you sense, originally started filming simply because of the opportunity to capture several generations of his family together — but, quickly, a story from the past captures his curiosity.

Looking at the photographs and clippings left behind by his grandmother, he pieces together a strange connection between his grandparents and people — one a known Nazi — from their German past.

Goldfinger's mother isn't curious and wants to let bygones be bygones, but the grandson can't help probing, launching an investigation that leads him back to Germany, to newly found relatives and to the descendants of long-ago friends.

The shadow of the Third Reich hangs over their conversations but doesn't come up much; it's not something the older Germans like to discuss. "Only third-generation Germans ask questions," says a woman, of her country's past. "Second generation doesn't ask."

Though not always smoothly presented (there's a key speakerphone conversation that, though in English, is very difficult to follow and should have been subtitled), "The Flat" is a compelling tale of history made personal, and of what happens when light is shone on something previously murky.

We see the shades in Gerda's flat being pulled up, almost violently, changing the look of the rooms as they're flooded by sunshine. By film's end, the flat is empty; ready for someone else who will move in — with another story.

"The Flat" is not rated but would probably receive a G (no objectionable material); running time 98 minutes.

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