A highly praised Israeli "documentary" manipulates its audiences
by Dan Lieberman
The Flat, a 2011 Israeli "documentary,” written and directed by Arnon Goldfinger, is an important film, but not for its content; as a documentary the film wanders off track. Its significance lies with identifying it as a skillful misdirection that manipulates audiences. Although The Flat received meritorious reviews and highly rated recommendations, reviewers displayed ignorance of the film's content, did not entirely capture what the celluloid revealed, misinterpreted the presentation, and gave value to a careless rendition of facts. Audience acceptance of The Flat is frightening – mass hysteria - multitudes of viewers not absorbing what they have seen and heard and responding to the narrative as conditioned automatons with internalized perceptions. Herbert Marcuse's One Dimensional Man sat in every corner of the theaters and provoked the question: Do most persons react in the same manner to information on world events? If so, now we know why the world is in trouble.
While clearing decades of paraphernalia from the apartment of his grandmother, deceased at the age of 98, Arnon Goldfinger discovers an old Nazi newspaper, Der Angriff. The crumpling journal features an article titled "A Nazi in Palestina," and pictures of camaraderie between protagonist Baron Leopold von Mildenstein, his wife, and Goldfinger's grandparents, Kurt and Gerda Tuchler. A surprised Goldfinger receives a greater jolt when he learns that von Mildenstein was a Nazi with the SS and received mention by Eichmann during his trial in Israel; Mildenstein was his superior at an early Jewish Affairs Desk (1934-1937). Letters in the apartment, written by Gerda Tuchler, and diaries from Frau Mildenstein, retrieved from Mildenstein's daughter, indicate that the Mildenstein's and Tuchlers had a close relationship before and after the war.
How can Goldfinger's Jewish grandparents, who were forced out of Germany in 1937 and knew that Gerda's mother had been moved to a Baltic camp, where she died, have socialized with a known Nazi and SS man who briefly commandeered the Jewish Affairs Desk? Goldfinger's mother cannot shed any light on this apparent contradiction, behaves perplexed, and is uninterested in pursuing a quest to find more information about the revelations. Not so with Goldfinger. He travels to Germany, meets von Mildenstein's daughter and her husband, several Germans, and an aging author of a mid-1960's article in the West German magazine Der Spiegel, which reports on Coca Cola executive Leopold von Mildenstein. By this time, Goldfinger has stopped caring about the relationship between his grandparents and von Mildenstein and has started a one-sided trek to expose the German SS officer as a war criminal. Nobody he meets is able to provide information that supports that description; the Der Spiegel reporter asserting he could find no evidence of von Mildenstein taking part in any war crime. At this point, Goldfinger has no documentary, only some photos and articles that lead nowhere.
Troubled by contradictions, Goldfinger maintains that the author of the Der Spiegel article performed insufficient research. In a sudden shift in the film, he journeys to the East German archives where he locates a dossier on von Mildenstein. The German's own handwriting of a note specifies he left the Jewish Affairs Desk in 1937, where Eichmann worked for him, but before that ministry was involved in concentration and labor camps, and that he moved to the propaganda ministry. Although, the film does not mention where in the Goebbel's ministry von Mildenstein labored, history indicates it was in the press department. With his latest information, Goldfinger, in a troubling moment in the film, confronts von Mildenstein's daughter and clearly disturbs the woman by accusing her father, without evidence, of being a propagandist in Goebbel's Ministry. "You can go yourself to the East German archives if you don't believe me," relates the triumphant Goldfinger. What this accomplished for Goldfinger and his mother is not clear, but he seemed to relish the moment of disheartening von Mildenstein's daughter and proving his grandparents cavorted with a known Nazi. Now he had a film.
Except, he did not. The "facts," which Goldfinger gathered are incomplete and improperly interpreted.
Leopold von Mildenstein's life is well known in history and was not clarified in the film. The director's voyage to learn about von Mildenstein's life, making it seem that he was on a unique investigation, which had a complicated and revealing mystery, is questionable. All he had to do is remain at home, Google the name Leopold von Mildenstein, read a few known articles and then interview the writers and their leads in the articles. The articles contain everything shown in the film plus magnitudes more information about Leopold von Mildenstein. Some articles:
Jacob Boas, 'Baron von Mildenstein and the SS support for Zionism in Germany, 1934-1936' in History Today, January 1980, and Jacob Boas, 'A Nazi Travels to Palestine', History Today, vol. 30, issue 1, pp. 33-38, Leopold von Mildenstein, and Lenni Brenner, 'Zionism in the Age of Dictators' (1983).
Three discoveries moved the director to learn more about his grandparents’ relationship with von Mildenstein and his wife:
(1) Eichmann, at his trial, mentioned von Mildenstein as being his initial superior at the bureau that governed Jewish Affairs,
(2) Goldfinger's grandparents, Gerda and Kurt Tuchler, who were forced to leave Germany in 1937 and relocated to Tel Aviv, maintained a close relationship with the von Mildenstein's before and after the war, and
(3) Von Mildenstein's 1933-1934 travels with the Tischlers to Tel Aviv in the pre-war period were compiled in a Nazi newspaper, Der Angriff, with the title: A National Socialist Goes to Palestine.
The history of Leopold von Mildenstein, for anyone to learn, is that of a German who joined the Nazi Party and favored Zionism long before the Nazis seized power. It seems it was Kurt Tuchler, as a Zionist representative, who made contact with Mildenstein in order to encourage him to push the Zionist agenda. Mildenstein replied that he wanted to gauge the success of the Zionist adventure before committing himself. Both men and their wives traveled to Palestine to observe Zionism in action, from which came several articles on A Nazi Travels to Palestine. Frau von Mildenstein's diaries and Gerda Tuchler's letters, as described in the film, indicate these families developed a strong friendship, which continued after the Tuchlers left Germany and refreshed after the war.
After journeying to Palestine for six months, Mildenstein convinced the Nazis in 1934 to open an office that favored the Zionist approach for movement of the Jews. Eichmann joined this office, not the one he later commanded for the 'final solution," and Mildenstein never trained Eichmann in any of his later nefarious activities as one reviewer claims. Rather than indicting Mildenstein, Eichmann attempted to excuse himself by claiming he worked in an office (Mildenstein's) that only sought to transfer Jews in accord with Zionist objectives. Maybe there is more to it, but neither the film nor history show that Mildenstein ever participated in or supported the eventual Holocaust.
As previously mentioned, Mildenstein left the Jewish Affairs Desk in 1937, where Eichmann worked for him, but before this ministry was involved in concentration and labor camps, and moved to the propaganda ministry. The most accepted reason for his departure is loss of favor - migration to Palestine was proceeding too slowly and the SS was changing its policy toward the Jews. During the war, Mildenstein is only known to have written articles and books. One 1942 book, which probably took two years to prepare, is titled: Naher osten-vom strassenrand erlebt or Roadside travels in the Middle East, not a likely Nazi propaganda piece of any significance. Goldfinger does not explain how Mildenstein could maintain his SS credentials while no longer working in the department that housed the SS or how he could be involved in the killings of Jews when he was not in any position to permit those occurrences.
As an early member of the Nazi Party and an SS officer involved in Jewish affairs, Leopold von Mildenstein deserves reproach. However, it seems that later he tempered those associations.
Although it is difficult to know the focus of the film, it is obvious that it should have been the exploration of the apparently comfortable relationship between the Jewish Tuchlers and the Nazi Mildensteins. That's a story! Just the opposite; Goldfinger steered his direction away from the obvious plot and into a confusing and incoherent film. Was this intentional? Would the more valid exploration have exposed a practical relationship between Zionist leaders and the Nazis (nothing sinister) and that the von Mildensteins and Tuchlers were only nationalists who shared interest in the German culture of Goethe and Heine, in Zionism, and a common desire to live an elegant life? Gerda Tuchler resembled and dressed similar to Mary, the Queen of England at that time.
Rather than being conspirators in troubled times, it seems that the two families were harmless friends who did not recognize any nefarious attitudes or political machinations in one another. That's all we know - everything else is imagination.
Arnon Goldfinger produced a "pseudo documentary," and proceeded to exaggerate findings in order to get his film into theaters. His lack of concern that the poorly researched document unfairly harms the memory of his own grandparents is troubling. More troubling are the reviews - devoid of any reality. Here are some:
"Goldfinger further shies away from glaringly valid accusations that might excite the documentary's pulse: For example, that Mildenstein indirectly supported the architecture of the Holocaust, and that his postwar relationship with Goldfinger's Jewish grandparents was meant to cleverly scaffold his innocence with regard to Nazi war crimes."
Goldfinger didn't shy away from anything. He found nothing. Nowhere in his "research," in the film, or in history is it shown that "Mildenstein indirectly supported the architecture of the Holocaust, and that his postwar relationship with Goldfinger's Jewish grandparents was meant to cleverly scaffold his innocence with regard to Nazi war crimes." The reviewer has originated bizarre comments on subjects he knows nothing about and that have no historical proof. It can even be argued that the film and history indicate that Mildenstein, by cooperating with the Zionist Federation in permitting Jews to immigrate to Palestine, managed to save tens of thousands of Jews from eventual destruction.
"Coke produced a flattering biography for Mildenstein's 60th birthday; we're told by a writer for Der Spiegel who investigated the former SS man. Mildenstein seems to have evaded prosecution by stating that he worked for the CIA. The US government never acknowledged this, but he was not prosecuted. Besides the Spiegel coverage in 1966, after Mildenstein's death, the story was kept relatively quiet."
The writer for Der Spiegel clearly stated, "I researched everything myself and could not find any evidence that von Mildenstein committed any war crimes." I don't remember seeing in the film that "Mildenstein seems to have evaded prosecution by stating that he worked for the CIA." The reviewer might have been referring to information outside the film. Note the sinister remark, "the story was kept relatively quiet." Why would it be broadcasted and how, if it was kept relatively quiet, did the reviewer learn about it?
"The find sends Goldfinger off on a voyage that eventually leads him to Wuppertal, Germany, where he meets von Mildenstein's daughter, Edda, who has cocooned herself in her own form of denial about her father's past. Goldfinger's research -- which includes Eichmann's trial testimony, in which he cited von Mildenstein as his predecessor under Goebbels in anti-Jewish propaganda campaigns -- paints an unsavory portrait."
Edda, who was about five years of age at war's end, has not cocooned herself and has nothing to deny - they lived in Germany during the war and her father worked for the government as did millions of other Germans. She was more in shock than in denial. After gladly receiving Goldfinger and relating to him her favorable memories of the Tuchlers, she learns he only wants to find troubling information about her father and throw it in her face. The reviewer’s statement that "Eichmann's trial testimony cited von Mildenstein as his predecessor under Goebbels in anti-Jewish propaganda campaigns" is not plausible. Eichmann could not have said those words; he never worked for Goebbels and therefore he and Mildenstein could not have worked together in conducting anti-Jewish propaganda campaigns.
The opening statement of one review reads, "In The Flat, an understated and meticulously researched doc…" It should have been written, “in an overstated and carelessly researched doc…."
Arnon Goldfinger leads his audience from knowing at the start that Leopold von Mildenstein was a Nazi in the SS to showing at the end that Leopold von MIldenstein had been a Nazi in the SS. Documentaries are learning experiences; this documentary adds little knowledge after depicting von Mildenstein's early voyage with the Tuchlers to Palestine - 30 minutes of baiting and 60 minutes of fishing - nothing concrete on what the Mildensteins and the Tuchlers did apart or together, no voices heeded, and no leads followed. After nearly two hours of watching, the film’s finale tells us only a little more than what we already knew - von Mildenstein actually led the Jewish Affairs Desk until 1937, after which he transferred to the Propaganda Ministry.
The moral of The Flat is that forces can interrupt a story and use it to pursue an agenda. In order to prevent a documentary that investigates the known discourse between the Zionists and the Nazis to transport Jews from Germany to Palestine (nothing sinister but an interesting story) and the peculiar relationship between a Zionist family and a Nazi family, the action is diverted to trying to prove there is no such person as a rehabilitated SS officer - once a Nazi, always a Nazi.
A larger issue emerges - proof that the media can be easily subverted; that either consciously or without awareness reporters don't report but serve an agenda.
For sure, the poorly conceived documentary The Flat will win an Academy Award for the best documentary of 2012.
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