Put a camera in front of people and you're bound to elicit a variety of reactions. Some will pose and posture. Still others will feign indifference. Kids likely will be more demonstrative than adults.
You'll see all of those reactions in Three Minutes: A Lengthening, a film shot by a tourist in the Polish town of Nasielsk in 1938. The film was taken by David Kurtz, who traveled from the U.S. to his Polish hometown on what turned out to be the eve of the German invasion and the Holocaust.
Not a skilled photographer, Kurtz's footage operates on strictly amateur levels, but the movie's poignance evolves from the knowledge we bring to the film. Simply put: We know a good deal more than the people who are being photographed — and what we know is horrific.
More than the sadness of watching ordinary people long gone, Three Minutes conveys the eerie sorrow that comes from our awareness: The people we're watching didn't die of disease and old age. Their lives never ran the expected course. Most were murdered in German death camps. The movie becomes a historical time bomb.
The footage was discovered in 2009 by Kurtz's grandson Glenn, who gave it to the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. Director Bianca Stigter fashioned the footage into an artful reminder of the lives of folks who had no idea about the fate that awaited them.
We see kids in the street. People gather in front of the town grocery or exit the town's synagogue. The boys wear caps. Some of them are boisterous, less so the girls. The ordinary humanity of Nasielsk's Jews makes Stigter's film unusually touching.
Glenn Kurtz wrote a 2004 book titled Three Minutes in Poland and Stigter follows Kurtz's lead, talking about the difficulty of identifying these lost souls.
A woman who saw the footage recognized her grandfather, Maurice Chandler, a man who survived the Holocaust. Chandler was 13 when the footage was shot. In interviews conducted recently, Stigter offers guidance about the town and its residents.
You'll learn something about attempts to restore the footage but the real power of the movie lies in searching the faces of people who were very much alive on a sunny and unexceptional day in a town most of us never would have heard of had it not been for three minutes of film.