As Arnon Goldfinger’s new documentary, “The Flat,” opens, the filmmaker and his family are cleaning out the Tel Aviv apartment of his German-born grandmother, where she lived for decades until her death at 98. What for most families would be an emotional but uneventful process takes a sharp turn for the Goldfingers, however, as they find photographs and newspaper articles that reveal a disturbing, previously unknown chapter in the family’s past.

Goldfinger’s grandparents, who never quite blended into Israeli society, retained close ties not only to the country of their birth, but also to a German couple whose unsettling identity is revealed early in the film. The discovery sparks a five-year journey that Goldfinger records with his camera, slowly uncovering the story for himself, his mother and the world.

‘What you see onscreen is not always what a person feels,’ the director says

“What I found out is inconvenient and shocking,” said Goldfinger, 49, whose relatives — his mother in particular — react with dismay at what he learns.

While the filmmaker appears placid for much of his time onscreen, he says he struggled deeply with whether to push forward with the project.

“What you see onscreen is not always what a person feels,” Goldfinger told The Times of Israel. “As you could guess, the whole experience was very shocking… There were many sleepless nights when I wondered if I should do the film.”

Audiences and critics seem glad he did. Since premiering in Israel last year, “The Flat” has won the Ophir, Israel’s version of the Oscar, for best documentary, as well as prizes at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival and at festivals in Poland and Germany.

Now playing in New York and Los Angeles, “The Flat” will expand to San Francisco on Nov. 2, and captivates audiences quickly with the onscreen discovery of a striking family artifact — a commemorative coin bearing a Jewish star and the German words “A Nazi travels to Palestine.”

In "The Flat," filmmaker Arnon Goldfinger and his mother, Hannah, learn disturbing family secrets in the wake of his grandmother's death. (Photo credit: Courtesy of IFC Films)

In “The Flat,” filmmaker Arnon Goldfinger and his mother, Hannah, learn disturbing family secrets in the wake of his grandmother’s death. (Photo credit: Courtesy of IFC Films)

Tracing the coin’s provenance and learning about his grandparents’ past resulted in several trips to Germany, where Goldfinger met with distant relatives and visited his grandmother’s childhood home.

The visits also included encounters with Germans with troubled family backgrounds of their own. The meetings generated complicated, mixed emotions in Goldfinger, whose previous documentary, 2000’s “The Komediant,” examined the life of Yiddish stage actor Pasach Burstein.

“I cannot be in Germany or Berlin without thinking of what happened in those streets,” Goldfinger said. “On the other hand, Germany is my source — it’s where my grandparents are from. When I hear German, I hear the Nazis, but I also hear my grandparents. It’s their language.”

‘When I hear German, I hear the Nazis, but I also hear my grandparents. It’s their language’

While the film features lighter moments, such as the discovery of old-fashioned clothes and other possessions of his grandmother, much of the shoot proved upsetting, especially as the Goldfingers realized how little they’d known about their family matriarch.

Nevertheless, Goldfinger says, the process proved worthwhile — even healing, in the end. “It opened up discussions in the family that we never had before,” he said. “Not only about grandma, but about our relationships with each other.”

As for his grandparents, with whom he was close, Goldfinger says he feels grateful for the insight he gained, even when it offered a less flattering picture of who they were.

“I feel closer to my grandparents,” he said, “because they’ve become more real, well-rounded figures. I feel sorrow and compassion for them — they’re much more in my heart now.”

Even his mother, who expressed doubts about making the documentary, was ultimately won over. “She understands how important the film is,” Goldfinger said.

“The story forced me to do it,” he went on. “There was a voice that didn’t let me let it go. I felt this was my destiny.”