Alfred Willer was extraordinarily lucky. But, in the context of the Holocaust, “extraordinarily lucky” still means living with almost unimaginable loss.
Marina Willer’s impressionistic documentary “Red Trees,” now out on Blu-Ray from Cohen Media Group, aims to tell the story of her father and her family’s Holocaust story in a highly unorthodox way. Its visual daring sets it apart from other documentaries about the Holocaust, and justifiably so, since it’s a very unusual story.
At the end of the war, the Willers were one of just a dozen Jewish families still living free in Prague. Her grandfather’s experience as a scientist was valued by the Nazis and protected the family. But that left the Willers to watch helplessly as their friends and neighbors were taken away to the camps, or simply killed in the street.
Much of the story is presented from the perspective of Marina Willer’s father, Alfred, who was a boy during World War II. Through his remembrances (brought to life in voiceover narration by the late British actor Tim Pigott Smith), we hear the family’s struggle to stay alive, moving from place to place, and finally joining millions of European refugees who were welcomed by Brazil after the war.
Marina Willer marries these memories with gorgeous, meditative images shot by cinematographer Cesar Charlone. These images give the viewer the space to really contemplate the power of the story. In one shot near the end, the camera simply watches the wake of a ship as Pigott-Smith lists all the things that the Willer family left behind forever in emigrating to South America (“Chocolate bars and candies. The doorbell of our family’s house. A little girl named Lisl.”)
Marina Willer, who grew up in Brazil but lived in London, says she made “Red Trees” to better understand her father and what he went through. But she also better understands her own family, how it moved halfway around the world and adapted to a new culture.
“Red Trees” is as much about today’s refugees as it is about those from World War II, its message an ultimately hopeful one about a family’s ability to survive such upheaval. Alfred Willer says in voiceover that he now can’t understand how a person’s identity could be so wedded to one culture. We are meant to travel through different cultures, he says, our identities’ altered by the experience. “In that mixture,” he says, “there is beauty.”
The imagery in “Red Trees” looks ravishing on Blu-ray, but unfortunately the disc only counts a trailer and an extremely brief (as in one-question) interview with Marina Willer as its bonus features.