“The Flat” uncovers a relationship between a Nazi and a Jew

The Israeli documentary “The Flat” begins in a Tel Aviv apartment, where half a dozen people are clearing out 70 years of clutter left behind by their grandmother, who has died recently at 98.

After this deceptively low-key start, Arnon Goldfinger, the film’s director, writer and narrator, embarks on a real-life detective thriller while exploring some very personal and haunting questions.

How much do we really know — or want to know —  about the lives of our families, especially our grandparents? What were the deep ties that bound German Jews to a fatherland that had just expelled them? Could a high-ranking Nazi SS official also be an ardent Zionist and a close friend of a Jewish couple?

Goldfinger’s grandfather, Kurt Tuchler, was a Berlin judge, an active Zionist and a German patriot who had been decorated in World War I. He and his wife, Gerda, left Germany for Tel Aviv in 1936 and, during the seven decades they lived in their flat, completely re-created their Berlin milieu and never threw away a single receipt, letter or pair of shoes.

As their surviving daughter and grandchildren throw sack after sack of litter into a garbage dump, Arnon rescues a copy of Der Angriff, a newspaper published by Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels himself, dated April 1933.

Why would Kurt Tuchler carry such an anti-Semitic rag with him when leaving for Palestine?

Well, the lead story is titled “A Nazi Visits Palestine,” written by Leopold von Mildenstein, which gives considerable space to the accomplishments of the pioneer Jews reclaiming the land. The writer was accompanied by his wife and by a Jewish couple — Kurt and Gerda Tuchler, Goldfinger’s grandparents.

How was such a relationship possible? As one analyst in the film explains, at the time, the Nazis just wanted to expel all the Jews, and Palestine seemed like the place to go.

The Zionist organization also wanted the Jews to go to Palestine and, therefore, assigned two trusted members, the Tuchlers, to accompany the von Mildensteins.

But the relationship between the Nazi, scion of an old aristocratic family, and the Jew didn’t end there. The von Mildensteins accompanied the Tuchlers to the train as they left for Palestine. Even after the Holocaust, in which part of Tuchler’s family perished, the two couples resumed their friendship, with von Mildenstein, now the Coca-Cola representative in Germany, hosting the Tuchlers year after year.

So perhaps von Mildenstein was one of the “good” Germans — or maybe not.

During his trial in Jerusalem in 1961, Adolf Eichmann testified that his SS superior and mentor in “solving the Jewish question,” and the recognized expert on Judaism, was a von Mildenstein, who later worked in Goebbels’ propaganda ministry.

Goldfinger finds von Mildenstein’s daughter, who receives him warmly but says that her father was merely a journalist and had been cleared of any war crimes charges.

Interwoven in this central drama are the relationships within the extended Goldfinger family.

Arnon’s siblings know practically nothing about their grandparents, and even his mother, the Tuchlers’ daughter, counsels initially that there is not much sense in digging up old stories.

“The Flat” was screened last week at the Museum of Tolerance, and afterward a highly engaged audience had a chance to question Goldfinger about his film.

In response, the 49-year-old director, obviously a thoughtful and sensitive person — as well as a one-time chess prodigy — explored some of the complexities of his life and documentary.

How could the Nazi and the Jew carry on a friendship, both before and after the war, a viewer asked.

Von Mildenstein was an educated and sophisticated man who found in Tuchler his intellectual equal, Goldfinger proposed.  So the SS officer found no contradiction in ordering the expulsion of Jews in the morning, and in the afternoon having a cup of coffee and stimulating chat with Tuchler, though, regrettably, the Jew would have to go in the end.

But why did the Tuchlers resume their friendship even after the horrors of the war and the Holocaust?

Goldfinger put the same question to a German scholar as part of the documentary, who answered that perhaps Tuchler needed the relationship more than did von Mildenstein.

The old, established Jewish community in Germany was so invested in its German identity that even after Hitler came to power, it wanted to believe that not everybody despised the Jews, that there were indeed some “good” Germans.

Did von Mildenstein’s daughter lie when she defended her father’s reputation, another audience member asked. Goldfinger replied that she may not have told everything she knew; she may have been in denial, but that did not make her an outright liar.

Deservedly, “The Flat” has been received with acclaim and awards in Israel and Germany and will be appreciated by anyone who values first-class documentary filmmaking with an open-minded exploration of human complexity. 

The Flat” opens Oct. 24 at the Landmark in West Los Angeles, and on Nov. 2 at the Laemmle theaters in Pasadena and Encino, and at the Regency South Coast Village in Costa Mesa.