The residence in the “The Flat’’ belongs to the director’s grandmother, Gerda Tuchler. It’s a tastefully appointed apartment in Tel Aviv, featuring a remarkable library and an impressive collection of purses, rugs, formal gloves, and snout-to-tail fur outerwear. Her grandson Arnon Goldfinger begins his documentary not long after her death at 98, and for about half an hour, it’s helplessly cute. The family fills the space in order to empty it. Decades of a life are stuffed into garbage bags or tossed over the balcony, usually while an oboe whines, a piano twinkles, or something chimes on the soundtrack. Why do filmmakers do this? It’s not artistic or mood inducing. It’s just musical busywork.
It’s like a nervous tic in this movie, something that surfaces in the face of the discomfiting scandal at the film’s center. All that mirthful emptying out turns up a mystery. Gerda and her husband, Kurt, were German Jews who lived most of their lives as Zionists in Israel. But for many years after WWII they maintained a friendship with the von Mildensteins, a baron and baroness of sorts. The baron, Leopold, was a propagandist and SS officer. He traveled with the Tuchlers and was a German who viewed Zionism, in part, as a practical means of getting Jews out of Germany and to Palestine. Goldfinger asks his mother, Hannah, whether she’d ever heard about these friends of her parents. She says no. Hannah’s mother never talked about the past, and it’s obvious from Hannah’s tense demeanor that she’d prefer not to as well.
What ensues is a stressful search for an approximation of the truth. Goldfinger tracks down the von Mildensteins’ genial daughter Edda, who appears to enjoy a comfortable life in the German town of Wuppertal. She proves accommodating with photographs and details, but you’re nervous it won’t last. Goldfinger narrates the events as though he’s reading a story to children who couldn’t follow along otherwise, and labels Edda a Nazi’s daughter. So there’s tension there, too. But he’s genial in his way, as well.
Edda and Hannah are in the unenviable position of having to learn uncomfortable news about their parents. They were raised to believe one set of things, only to discover after all these decades that their parents’ lives and allegiances were far more complicated than they knew. Regarding Hannah’s grandmother, who appears to have perished at the Theresienstadt concentration camp, the truth is even murkier. The scope of Goldfinger’s detective work expands to include more relatives and repeated trips to Germany.
The movie is worth seeing, so what’s settled by these exchanges of selective memory and the public record shouldn’t be ruined. But the moral questions about friendship go beyond the Tuchlers and the von Mildensteins. At some point the idea is raised that Goldfinger’s generation has the luxury of nosiness. Survival for his mother and his grandparents — and for Edda and her parents, to a different extent — hinged on disregarding the rearview mirror and just pressing forward. But there’s something touching about the way Goldfinger obeys his moral compass. He doesn’t seem at all happy with that luxury. It’s a burden by a more extravagant name.