Venice 2021 review: Three Minutes – A Lengthening (Bianca Stigter)

“a short moment in history is lengthened to a fascinating and well-researched portrait of life before the storm, and a moving experience altogether”

In 2008 Glenn Kurtz discovered an old 16mm film in his parents’ house in Palm Beach, Florida. It was footage shot by his grandfather, David Kurtz, during a trip to Europe with his wife, shortly before World War II. Among the expected scenes from places like Paris or Amsterdam, the places most Americans would visit (and still do) on such a trip, there were three minutes of film shot in a town Glenn Kurtz didn’t recognize. Research showed him it was the town of Nasielsk, a small village north of Warsaw, Poland, the birthplace of his grandfather. Unaware of the horror that lay ahead for Nasielsk’s 3000 Jewish inhabitants, David Kurtz shot the town in happier times, with people flocking around him to get a look at this man and his camera. Little did they know that only a couple of years later few of them would survive the Holocaust and return to Nasielsk.

Three Minutes – A Lengthening chronicles Glenn Kurtz’s journey into finding out more about the town and the people in his grandfather’s film, a journey that would eventually lead to a book, Three Minutes in Poland. Bit by bit, like a forensic detective, he figured out exactly what scenes we are watching, and eventually found seven still-living survivors from Nasielsk, two of whom are actually identified in the short clip. Anonymous faces become names, stories, people. Everyday objects gain social and cultural significance. And most of all the inevitable doom is postponed for just a little bit longer, as the people in the film get their story told. A story that eventually turns grim through an account of the day the Jewish inhabitants of the town were led away.

In her directorial debut Bianca Stigter shows her experience as a researcher, for which she was recognized before as a co-producer (she is widely credited for her work on her partner Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, for instance). But Stigter, a former newspaper editor and writer, also shows a knack for steadily layering a story out of just a couple of minutes of silent footage to turn Three Minutes – A Lengthening from a research project into an essay and at times a philosophical treatise on film as a documentation medium, its limitations in that regard, and the meaning of its images. Beautifully narrated by Helena Bonham Carter, her voiceover text particularly well written, with commentary by Glenn Kurtz himself and survivor Maurice Chandler, the film becomes a testimony to the existence of the people in it. Given their eventual fate, a segment where all the faces from the original footage are one by one assembled into a collage is a touching tribute to Nasielsk and its people.

Does the image of a documentary or photo really do justice to a memory, or does it merely represent a moment in time without really getting to the core of the place? It is questions like these that we constantly have to ask ourselves when we watch those images. Nasielsk was and is more than just the limited footage that Three Minutes – A Lengthening is built upon. But for 60-odd minutes, that short moment in its history is indeed lengthened to a fascinating and well-researched portrait of life before the storm, and a moving experience altogether.