As 2022 draws to a close, we’re taking a moment to look back at the year in film: the best of what we all saw, and the best of the films that might not have made it on your radar. Follow our coverage here!
One month made all the difference. Three minutes of footage, a home movie taken in 1938 of a Jewish community in Nasielsk, Poland, almost fully deteriorated to the point of no return. Had the amateur filmmaker’s grandson attempted to save the film a month later than he did, these images of a community that would soon be murdered in the Holocaust would have been lost. And one of the greatest films of the year, Three Minutes: A Lengthening, which extends the footage into a documentary on the people in the frame, would not exist.
Director Bianca Stigter begins the film, which debuted at festivals in 2021 and had its theatrical run this year, by playing the home movie footage, shot by tourist David Kurtz, in full. We see young faces marvel at the novel technology that is the movie camera. They wave and smile. Some follow the camera as it pans from one end of the street to the other, trying to get as much time in front of the lens as possible. The older members of the community, though often in the background, seem just as interested. A few lean against poles or the entryways of buildings, taking it all in.
What follows, as the film’s title suggests, is an effort to extend this footage, to take out of it as much history and information and as many clues as one can. Over 69 minutes, the voiceover of Helena Bonham Carter guides the viewer through this process. We listen to interviews with Glenn Kurtz, the man who discovered the film and wrote a book about the experience. We hear from a survivor who, after watching a digitized version of the home movie online, recognized himself as a young boy.
Though various outside sounds are brought into the film, the images are only drawn from the home movie, which is remixed in various ways. The one exception comes when we see a 3D-rendering of the town depicted in the film, which is presented as an experiment, to see how it feels to experience the town in this way. When compared to the film, it feels flat. It is missing the people. And it is the people who make the film – who, in their response to the camera, demonstrate the powerful, beautiful, and devastating nature of the moving image.
Three Minutes: A Lengthening is, in part, a film about the power of the moving image. But it is not self-congratulatory in the way that so many contemporary “valentines to cinema” are. The fragility of film and its ability to capture and preserve an aspect of reality inform the story. They become tools through which the faces and stories of these people can be honored and reinserted into the historical narrative. Names are what we often memorialize, the film notes, but what of images? Of faces? The approach the film takes is a revelatory one, showcasing the unique abilities of the moving image to reveal and deepen history.
The story of the Holocaust is told through the film. Fewer than 100 people from the town would survive. Their lives are honored through this history, through the time we spend with them via the filmic image, but also through the narrative focuses of the filmmakers. We learn about the grocery store. About the different kinds of clothes they wore. The social hierarchies. The iconography on the doors of the synagogue. The goings on of everyday life are treated with the respect they deserve. We learn and experience many histories, the ones that are so often forgotten and, just like the film strip nearly was, destroyed.
Film preservation and other digital techniques are employed in the lengthening process. Clips from the home movie are slowed-down, zoomed-in, played in reverse, placed side-by-side, and presented in various contrasts and saturations. Moments are reassembled in montages. Images of the street are reconstructed in panoramic view. Each of these techniques add a critical layer to the film, unearthing new textures and understandings of the image. Runtime does not equal density. Through this manipulation of footage, the weight of history becomes apparent, as does the richness of the lives we see on screen.
We come to understand the chemical processes of film preservation by seeing the actual film strip in its deteriorated state. After its discovery, Glenn Kurtz donated it to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. From there, a digitized copy made its way online, where the granddaughter of Maurice Chandler discovered the film, and thus the images of her grandfather as a young boy. Chandler’s reflections provide the historical basis through which other people and places are identified. When his voice comes on screen, a deep sense of history comes with him; he and the strips of film were together on that day in Nasielsk, and that they are reunited now. Though the clip is only three minutes long, it represents the lengths of countless lives, of a living, ongoing history.
Maurice Chandler and the film were brought back together via the internet. Special effects and other digital editing tools are used in the service of this film, in the generation of new history. In a time where filmmaking grapples with its own materiality, Three Minutes: A Lengthening showcases the potential of the digital. It reveals how one form can preserve and reimagine another. Histories are continuous, only insofar as we continue to watch and dig and understand.