Award-winning filmmaker Marina Willer (“Cartas da Mãe”) creates an impressionistic visual essay as she traces her father’s family journey, from war-torn Eastern Europe to the color and light of South America, as one of only twelve Jewish families to survive the Nazi occupation of Prague during World War II.
Here’s an eloquent documentary about the Holocaust that has little reason for existence, beyond its maker’s – Marina Willer’s – personal desire to investigate her father Alfred’s horrific plight during the worn-torn Czechoslovakia. Admittedly, his memoirs could have made for a thrilling, emotional story, but “Red Trees” rarely says anything new about that tragic period of our history and, after over 300 films made on the subject matter, its small scope, frequent reliance on “screen saver” footage and narration from the recently-deceased actor Tim Pigott-Smith may make it difficult for the doc to find a wide audience.
But perhaps that’s beyond the point. Perhaps Ms. Willer, “humbled by what [her family] had to go through to stay alive, just to keep going, day after day,” made the documentary for no one else but herself, as a sort of exorcism. It fails to function as an “impressionistic” piece, nor does it have enough momentum to truly shock or entertain, but it’s certainly earnest and holds attention (barely) due to the narrated prose, courtesy of Alfred himself. “I’ve seen people murdered on the streets, on both sides,” he says. “You learn not to look, but you never forget.” Passages like this make one wonder if they’d be better off reading Alfred’s fascinating biography rather than watching Marina’s “best of” compilation.
Like her father, Marina does have a way with words. She describes the pre-war Prague as “a beautiful young model of democracy for the whole of Europe, borne out of the First World War and about to be strangled by the Second.” The doc then follows the Willer family’s plight, from living in a small apartment in Prague – where their passports were confiscated, eliminating their chances of immigrating – to their eventual escape to Brazil, “a nation of color [where] the leaves are always green”; of “Saudade,” a feeling of melancholia and longing. Having practiced carpentry, entranced by Prague’s historical architecture, Alfred’s career path was already determined. By the end we get to see Alfred’s children and grandchildren, each of whom has been influenced by their father’s story; Maria became a designer, her brother an architect.
Willer’s film is not without its merits. It deals with the relevant issue of what it means to be a migrant. It’s soaked in bitter nostalgia, examining how time corrodes, both metaphorically and literally, as shown in the scenes where the Willers revisit the Czech Republic and the once-flourishing factories, now rusting and disheveled. One factory cloakroom, filled with lifeless, hanging uniforms is particularly striking. Pigott-Smith conveys the intensity of Alfred’s writing, especially in the scenes of the bombs dropping on Prague, missing a 15-year-old Alfred by an inch.
Yet “Red Trees” can’t escape the tropes of a typical autobiographical doc: swirling piano music, voice-over driving the narrative, B-roll footage of fields, buildings, factories, soap bubbles, telephone wires, ocean waves and gray skies. Dull, self-indulgent passages, such as Alfred bonding with his grandchildren or Maria wondering, “what would the world be like?” are borderline groan-inducing. Sophisticated but unoriginal, “Red Trees” is yet another sub standard reminder of both the evil humans are capable of, as well as the perseverance it takes to overcome such evil. Saudade, indeed.
In theaters September 15th