Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | August 25th, 2022
Three Minutes: A Lengthening (Bianca Stigter, 2021) 4 out of 4 stars.
On Wednesday, August 4, 1938, in the town of Nasielsk, Poland, a visitor, born there but long since emigrated to America, arrived with a small Kodachrome camera and captured a little over three minutes of footage in both color and black and white. He was David Kurtz, traveling with his similarly Polish-born wife. The frames he photographed remain the only surviving evidence of the existence of most of the folks caught by his lens, the vast majority of whom would soon, a little over a year later, be rounded up and shipped to the East, eventually to be killed in the Nazi death camp Treblinka. In her quietly moving tribute to these departed souls, Three Minutes: A Lengthening, director Bianca Stigter, making her feature debut, explores the meaning of memory and the power of images to honor the dead.
Jewish life in Poland, as well as in much of Central and Eastern Europe, was forever altered and, in most cases, irrevocably destroyed. And though this movie focuses exclusively on the people in Kurtz’s short reel, Stigter explores larger themes of universal interest. Each individual is worthy of our attention, and the fact that only some of them can be identified is a tragedy, though at least a handful are granted name recognition.
Through a wonderful stroke of luck, David Kurtz’s grandson Glenn discovered the 1938 film in a storage box in 2009, just months before it would have been irretrievably lost to the ravages of time. Realizing the value of what he had, the younger Kurtz submitted it for restoration, and what Stigter now shows us is that repaired sequence, further enhanced by special-effects artists so we can see certain interesting side-by-side comparisons. After the footage was digitized and place online, a woman watching it recognized the chubby cheeks (a family trait) of a 13-year-old boy who could only be her grandfather, himself still alive. This man, Maurice Chandler, becomes Kurtz and Stigter’s guide to identifying many of the others. Narrator Helena Bonham-Carter (Ocean’s Eight) acts as the voice of the director.
Stigter also recruits Polish historians and linguists to decipher the street signs and architecture of the background, thereby bringing in much-needed additional information. Slowly, bit by bit, she and Kurtz reconstruct, as best as they can, the who, what, when, and where of a vanished generation. Throughout, they project, over and over, the same shots, slowed down, distorted, and enhanced, and through the repetition we come to know every face of every frame. Three Minutes does more than merely lengthen: it eternalizes. While the crimes of Nazis cannot be undone, this is as valiant a cinematic repudiation of the Holocaust as one can find.