Time Machine: Bianca Stigter’s ‘Three Minutes: A Lengthening’

Three Minutes: A Lengthening Documentary Review - 2021 Bianca Stigter Film

The only nonfiction film to be selected for the 2022 Sundance Film Festival’s Spotlight section — a prestige category highlighting movies that have already premiered to acclaim elsewhere — Bianca Stigter’s feature-length directorial debut Three Minutes: A Lengthening is an inspired piece of cinematic archaeology. Stigter does exactly what the title of the piece invitingly and enigmatically implies: she examines a short section of 16mm home movie footage from every possible angle, stopping and starting and running and re-running the images without ever cutting to talking heads.

Three Minutes: A Lengthening shows footage of the Jewish inhabitants of Nasielsk, a small town north of Warsaw, Poland. The film in question was taken by David Kurtz in 1938 while on vacation, and later discovered by his grandson, Glenn, in 2009. Given that the celluloid was brittle, faded and on the very edge of salvageable, the movie was rescued and restored through the efforts of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. A lesson plan designed for grades seven to 12 on the organization’s website uses the Kurtz footage to “engage students in understanding both the individuality of Jewish lives affected by or lost in the Holocaust and the cumulative effects of the Holocaust on communities.”

Within seven years of Kurtz’s 1938 visit to Nasielsk, only about 100 of the town’s approximately 3,000 Jews would be alive.

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Three Minutes: A Lengthening Documentary Review - 2021 Bianca Stigter Film

Stigter’s excellent film, which does indeed lengthen the Nasielsk section of Kurtz’s home movies to a total running time of just under 70 minutes, works first as a rare and valuable artifact, a strange and unexpected crystal ball allowing viewers to peer into an ordinary moment in time just prior to the unthinkable arrival of and occupation by the German Nazis who would send so many to death. But Stigter’s direction transforms Three Minutes: A Lengthening into so much more than a historical lesson on atrocity and genocide. The narration, delivered by Helena Bonham Carter, constantly asks the audience to imagine contours, possibilities and meanings about the act of seeing, witnessing and understanding.

Several writers have already compared Stigter’s approach to the frame-by-frame scrutiny bestowed upon Abraham Zapruder’s 8mm documentation of the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963. But instead of capturing a tragedy, Three Minutes: A Lengthening anticipates one; in a matter of months, the people smiling and waving at the novelty of being in front of Kurtz’s camera will be removed to places like Treblinka.

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Three Minutes: A Lengthening Documentary Review - 2021 Bianca Stigter Film

In the Kurtz footage, around 150 individuals are seen. Of those people, fewer than a dozen were positively identified by name. It is one of the film’s most sobering revelations, intensified by the passion in Glenn Kurtz’s voiceover as he details the efforts to track any survivors who might have been in his grandfather’s viewfinder. Sections like this one, or the one in which another person methodically decodes the blurry letters on a briefly-visible grocery shop sign, bring into proximity the limitations and the promises of film. That thoughtful meta-narrative contemplation and Stigter’s exciting structural choices in Three Minutes: A Lengthening make for a profound experience.

Greg Carlson (@gcarlson1972) is an associate professor of communication studies and the director of the interdisciplinary film studies minor program at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. He is also the film editor of the High Plains Reader, where his writing has appeared since 1997.