After its pizzicato opening theme, “Three Minutes — A Lengthening” goes quiet for a little bit while showing the three minutes of footage referred to in the title. The only noise on the soundtrack is the whir of a projector, and the only images on the screen are taken from an amateur holiday film shot in a European town in the first half of the 20th century. Some of it is in black and white, some of it has pale colors. There are tree-lined cobbled streets, and apartment blocks with shutters and iron balconies. People wave and smile at the camera, jostling to stay in shot, apparently hypnotized by the novel technology before them. They all seem healthy, reasonably well off, and fundamentally ordinary. And that’s it. The footage comes to an end.
But Bianca Stigter, the Dutch director of “Three Minutes,” doesn’t move onto another set of images. For the remaining hour of her documentary essay, she replays the same fragments over and over, freeze-framing, rewinding, zooming in on particular faces, items of clothing, and architectural details. It should seem repetitive, but it grips the attention from start to finish.
This three-and-a-bit minutes of 16mm footage, explains a voiceover, was shot in August 1938 by David Kurtz, a Polish Jew who had grown up in New York. Having established himself as an American businessman, he toured Europe with his wife Liza and three friends, ticking off Paris and Amsterdam among other scenic capitals. He also visited Nasielsk, Liza’s hometown in east central Poland, which is where he showed off his brand new movie camera. A little over a year later, almost all of the town’s 3,000 Jewish inhabitants were murdered by the Nazis. Kurtz’s grandson, Glenn Kurtz, found the footage in an attic in Florida in 2008. It had been damaged by shrinking, cupping, edge weave, vinegar syndrome, and other conditions known only to film archivists — but it could still be restored. If Kurtz had discovered it a month later, we are told, that would have been impossible. Instead, we have a tiny, precious record of a world on the brink of destruction.
“Three Minutes” examines and re-examines the footage with the dedication of a Zapruder obsessive, scanning every last millimeter in the hope that it will reveal something momentous or something trivial — because, after all this time, the trivial is momentous, too. Who are all the people who stare out at us? How did they relate to each other? How important is it that we can see the faces of 150 of Nasielsk’s citizens, and identify 11 of them by name? And how is the film changed by our knowledge of what they were about to suffer?
If Stigter’s methods have one weakness, it’s that she poses such questions too explicitly. Her voiceover, dubbed in English by an actorly Helena Bonham Carter, is prone to the kind of whimsical musings that would be better suited to a school lesson plan (or indeed a film review). “David Kurtz rented a black sedan. Where did he get out?” she asks at one point. “What you see is what you know,” she pronounces at another. And at another, she comments that “trees” is “a very generic word.” These airy ruminations seem twee in the context, but when Stigter concentrates on the nitty gritty of how the film was shot, and what it actually contains, “Three Minutes” is fascinating.
Early on, we learn that red is the last color to fade from film, so it stands out in old, otherwise monochrome scenes — a fact that recalls the girl in the red coat in “Schindler’s List”. Later, we hear that after the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum put Kurtz’s footage online, an old man recognized his 13-year-old self. One of the massacre’s only survivors, he is able to explain what the boys’ caps signify about their levels of wealth and education. Many of the people seen by Kurtz wouldn’t normally be in the same crowd, he continues. The novelty of a tourist’s camera, adds Glenn Kurtz, had “scrambled the social hierarchy.”
The film’s electrifying centerpiece is a contemporary testimonial describing the horrific day when “they” — i.e., German soldiers — marched into town, and whipped and imprisoned every Jewish resident. During this long, gut-wrenching speech, Stigter zooms in slowly on one single frame until a clear picture becomes a cloudy blur. It’s a sequence which suggests the influence of one of the film’s producers, Steve McQueen — Stigter is an associate producer of two of his films. And, like the extended shots he uses in “Hunger” and “Lovers Rock,” it is so hypnotic that the viewer almost forgets to breathe.
It’s also, to be harsh, a slight cheat, because the information in the testimonial didn’t come from Kurtz’s footage. But “Three Minutes” still demonstrates how that footage, which must have seemed so insignificant at the time, now stands as an invaluable document and a humbling memorial. Beyond that, it’s a reminder of what a magical medium film is — how unique it is in its ability to capture so many moments and so much life. The narration quotes a 1930s Kodachrome advert which boasts that film brings back memories in a way that nothing else can. It’s corny, but it may well be true.