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Elegant film 'Three Minutes' shows Polish town before it was erased by the Holocaust


This is FRESH AIR. Back in the late 1930s, a visitor to a small village in Poland shot 3 minutes of film in the Jewish part of town, which soon would be wiped out by the Nazis. Years later, this unseen footage was discovered and now forms the basis of a new documentary. It's called "Three Minutes: A Lengthening." And it opens in theaters today. Our critic-at-large, John Powers, says that it doesn't just capture a vanished piece of history, but also makes us think about how we look at the images that surround us.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Whether we like it or not, our culture today is all about quick takes and snap judgments. I mean, who has the time to look closely at anything, even the countless pictures on our phones that we think matter to us? One person who does take the time is the Dutch writer-director Bianca Stigter. Her elegant new documentary, "Three Minutes: A Lengthening," is built around a little over 3 minutes of 16-millimeter footage shot in a Polish village that would soon be ravaged by the Holocaust. Treating the brevity of the material as a challenge, maybe even an advantage, Stigter transfigures these seemingly modest visual resources into a transfixing film that evokes a vanished world, explores historical memory and ponders film's ability to bring the past to life. The footage was shot by a Polish immigrant to America, David Kurtz. On a European vacation in 1938, he decided to use his brand-new camera to get some shots, most in color, of his hometown of Nasielsk - population 7,000. More precisely, he grabs shots of the quarter where the village's 3,000 Jewish citizens lived. This was mainly slice-of-life stuff - people walking down the street, men stepping out of a synagogue, women standing in shop doors.

Two years earlier, the great German critic Walter Benjamin wrote that in the modern world, everyone feels entitled to be filmed. And you sense that here. The most striking activity in Kurtz's footage is the local citizenry jockeying to be in front of the camera like an entire village of photo-bombers. Kurtz's film remained unseen until his grandson Glenn stumbled across it in 2009 and began trying to discover what this teasingly eloquent footage showed starting with where it was shot.

He wrote a book about it that caught the eye of Stigter, who pushed even harder to squeeze every bit of meaning she could from the three minutes. This included everything from laboring to decipher blurry signage - what exactly was the grocery store owner's name? - to seeking out anyone who lived there at the time. Here, survivor Maurice Chandler and his family talk about what they saw when they first came across Kurtz's film on a website.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I saw my grandfather's face. And I heard my dad on the phone say to my mom, there's your father. I said, it's Grandpa. It's him.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: My father's face is so recognizable because of the full cheeks that I think a lot of us in the family inherited from my dad. When my daughter called my father, the first thing he said was, now you know I'm not from Mars.

MAURICE CHANDLER: I recognized myself immediately, but I couldn't remember what was the occasion.

POWERS: Now, in lengthening the original three minutes to a 70-minute film, Stigter doesn't pad the images with newsreel footage, talking heads or reenactments. Instead, to show us new aspects, she keeps playing the footage in different ways - slowing it down here, backing it up there, enlarging some frames, freezing others. We largely remain within the world that Kurtz captured in 1938, a seemingly solid world that would soon be erased. As the only surviving footage from pre-war Nasielsk, the ordinary becomes extraordinary.

Along the way, Helena Bonham Carter's narrative tells us many things about the footage - about the weather on the day when it was shot, about the camera Kurtz used and his clumsiness with it, about the village's Jewish-owned button factory that would soon be appropriated, and about the horrific December day in 1939 when Jews were ordered in the town square we see and then sent off to the Treblinka death camp. Only 100 of the 3,000 survived. The film shows this none of this death, only the living presence of the villagers caught on camera.

The critic Alissa Simon has termed Stigter's approach forensic. And she's right. From Bonham Carter's admirably cool narration to Wilko Sterke's spare score, "Three Minutes" doesn't try to milk our emotions with the horrors of the Holocaust and is all the more moving for it. It's amazing what riches she and Kurtz unearth from so little footage. Indeed, with her steady, concentrated, almost archaeological gaze, Stigter deliberately sets herself in opposition to today's dominant culture with its 24/7 blizzard of images that don't stick. We glance at them for a second and then move on. Her approach in "Three Minutes: A Lengthening" is precisely the opposite. Every moment reminds us that if you want to get to the truth of the world, you can't just look at things; you have to give them your full attention.

BIANCULLI: John Powers reviewed the new documentary "Three Minutes: A Lengthening."

On Monday's show, former Republican operative Tim Miller talks about how his work as a GOP hatchet man helped create conditions that enabled the political rise of Donald Trump. Miller also describes his interviews with Republicans who privately condemn Trump, yet find reasons to support him. Miller's new book is titled "Why We Did It." Hope you can join us.


BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Charlie Kaier. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF EDGAR MEYER ET AL.'S "BUTTERFLY'S DAY OUT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.