‘Red Trees’: Film Review

Red Trees Still 2 - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Cohen Media Group
More a family album than a potent cinematic essay.

A first-time filmmaker explores the legacy of the Holocaust on her Czech family.

Setting out to trace her father’s experiences during World War II, graphic designer Marina Willer combines excerpts from his memoirs with her own observations and new footage, aiming for an alchemy that she achieves only fitfully.

With its story of survival and migration after devastating loss, the film’s tone is both elegiac and hopeful, but it’s not the powerfully contemplative essay that Willer clearly intends it to be. The sad truth is that we’ve heard countless harrowing stories of the Holocaust, and this one, for the most part, isn’t presented in a way that makes it indelible or urgent. The temperate Red Trees would, however, make an ideal classroom conversation starter for tweens and teens.

Willer lives in London and grew up in Brazil, where the surviving members of her family relocated after World War II. By the end of the war, they were one of only a dozen Jewish families still in Prague. Her grandfather’s scientific know-how, and its potential economic value to the Nazis, was their saving grace.

The filmmaker’s father, architect Alfred Willer, appears in the film, and the late Tim Pigott-Smith voices his writings about the war’s effect on him and his family: the killings he witnessed (“You learn not to look, but you never forget”), the neighbors and relatives who didn’t escape the camps, the cherished belongings that had to be left behind during the family’s various moves. Visiting places from his childhood with him, Willer and her brother, also an architect, hear stories that Alfred had never before told them. He’s a thoughtful, gentle presence, and the memories still clearly pain him.

On top of this quietly fraught interplay between past and present, the narration that the director herself contributes to the mix is largely unnecessary and tends toward the banal. The visuals, too, range from the pertinent and striking to patience-testing filler. (The three DPs include City of God cinematographer César Charlone.) Reflections in puddles and rainy windows are particularly overused. But Willer captures a haunting emptiness in footage of the Terezin concentration camp, where her great-grandmother perished.

More unexpected is the power of scenes shot in and around abandoned Czech factories. One, the Poldi Steel facility, stands in disrepair, a relic in an overgrown field. In another, coats and shoes hang from the ceiling of a cloakroom, the camera circling beneath them. These voiceless ghosts are the most distinctive part of the film.

The family’s interest in architecture and design carries into Willer’s appreciation of the “modernist utopia” that postwar Brazil represented to them. From her father’s descriptions of changing borders within Europe to his family’s escape to São Paulo, Red Trees is a story of migrants, giving it an of-the-moment resonance. Noting that many bilingual Czechs stopped speaking German after the war, the filmmaker ties the adaptations that the Willers and others had to make to the racial diversity in Brazil and the many immigrants attending her children’s London school.

Scenes of her father and her young sons discussing science and mythology and his colorblindness (the source of the documentary’s title) illustrate survival and regeneration. After a point, though, like much of Red Trees, they have more meaning and impact for the filmmaker and her family than for the audience.

Production company: Pentagram
Distributor: Cohen Media Group
Narrator: Tim Pigott-Smith
Director: Marina Willer
Screenwriters: Marina Willer, Brian Eley, Leena Telén
Producer: Charles S. Cohen
Executive producers: Marcelo Willer, Katya Krausova
Directors of photography: César Charlone, Jonathan Clabburn, Fábio Burtin
Editors: Karen Harley, Avdhesh Mola

80 minutes