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‘Three Minutes: A Lengthening’ is a work of ruminative grace and power

Holocaust documentary meticulously examines a three-minute clip of archival film footage from Poland in 1938

Townspeople of the predominantly Jewish village of Nasielsk, Poland, in 1938 as seen in the documentary “Three Minutes: A Lengthening.” (Family Affair Films/U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum/Super Ltd.)
(4 stars)

The first thing that greets you in “Three Minutes: A Lengthening” is a sound: the familiar clacking of film going through a projector. Then, the images: brief, alternately vivid and indistinct portraits of street life and domestic scenes; moments that, from the grain and scratches on the film, were obviously captured long ago. The montage lasts three minutes. And then it plays again.

We learn that this home movie was taken by David Kurtz, who had emigrated from Poland to the United States as a child and returned to his native country in 1938, as part of a “grand tour” of Europe. Like so many tourists, he brought his trusty 16mm home movie camera along; what he captured in those fleeting moments of people laughing and mugging and scolding and simply living life was the last visual record of the Jewish community of Nasielsk, which would be decimated the following year.

Working from the book “Three Minutes in Poland,” by Kurtz’s grandson Glenn Kurtz, filmmaker Bianca Stigter uses the elder Kurtz’s original footage to mesmerizing effect: Rather than intercut the frames with the usual talking heads offering explanation and interpretation, she focuses intently on the images, slowing them down, replaying them, zooming in, stopping them to examine an otherwise forgettable detail. “Three Minutes: A Lengthening” begins as a mystery story, when Glenn Kurtz, speaking off camera, explains how he came to discover his grandfather’s film, which was on the verge of being permanently unusable when he found it in 2008. We learn how his detective work led him to his ancestor’s hometown of Nasielsk, then he and Stigter go deeper, gleaning data from archives, costume historians, even the Polish Meteorological Institute, the better to understand more precisely the day of Aug. 4, 1938, and what the Jewish inhabitants might have been wearing and doing and celebrating.

Of course, the bitter irony is that, in their giddiness at being captured on camera, in their everyday teasing and wary curiosity, they have no idea that in a little more than a year, Germany would invade Poland and their lives would be torn apart. The shattering climax of “Three Minutes: A Lengthening” is a slow zoom into Nasielsk’s public square, set to the testimony of witnesses to the deportation of 1,600 Jews in December 1939.

That testimony, as well as the film’s narration, is read by Helena Bonham Carter in an exquisite vocal performance. Her dulcet tones and sensitive line interpretations draw us into a world that, in the film’s relatively brief running time, feels utterly immersive, even life-changing. So does the voice of Maurice Chandler, a Nasielsk native and Holocaust survivor whose appearance in the footage was discovered when the material was made available on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum website.

The museum’s restorative work was both literal and figurative, in bringing the celluloid back from near-extinction and in connecting the present to the past in a way that’s both mournful and triumphant. “Three Minutes: A Lengthening” winds up being a fascinatingly contradictory film, exemplifying both loss and the resuscitative work of memory, and the permanence and fragility of film as a material object. Formally, it’s both audacious and bracingly simple: Stigter eschews the conventions of documentary film while judiciously reducing them down to their finest, most potent elements. “Three Minutes: A Lengthening” unspools like a not-so-minor miracle. It’s a work of poetry, power and ruminative grace.

PG. At Landmark’s Bethesda Row Cinema. Contains mature thematic elements involving the Holocaust. 72 minutes.

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