When Alfred Willer was a boy in Czechoslovakia, he drew a forest and colored the trees red, as though they were on fire. But the forest was not burning, and the trees were in fact green. This is how Willer discovered he was color blind.
This anecdote figures prominently in Marina Willer‘s new feature documentary film,“Red Trees,” about her father’s experiences as an adolescent during the Holocaust. Alfred Willer and his parents were one of only 12 Jewish families to survive the Nazi occupation of Prague during World War II.
Alfred Willer, now 87, is color blind in a figurative sense, as well. With a religiously blended family and a warm and open attitude to all people in his multicultural adopted country of Brazil and elsewhere, he has always seen beyond race and religion.
“I have never understood an attachment to one nation, to one culture, one origin. Our origins our many, our journeys utterly unpredictable. We are a mixture, and in this there is beauty,” Willer says in the film.
His color blindness not withstanding, Willer is a highly visual person. Having always loved drawing, he eventually became a successful modernist architect, working mainly in the Brazilian city of Curitiba. Willer passed on his creativity and visual instincts to his children, including his London-based daughter Marina, who is a noted graphic designer and partner at Pentagram, the world’s largest independently owned design studio.
This being said, it’s not surprising that Marina Willer chose a visual idiom to tell her father’s story. However, “Red Trees,” opening September 15 in New York and Los Angeles, busts open the genre, taking Holocaust memoir film into new artistic territory.
An impressionistic visual essay, “Red Trees” bursts with stunning, colorful images shot in the Czech Republic, London and Brazil by Academy Award nominated cinematographer César Charlone (“City of God”). A few old family photos are interspersed here and there, but not one frame of black and white archival footage appears.
“Holocaust memoirs are a subject so overly discussed. I wanted to draw attention with a different angle,” Marina Willer told The Times of Israel.
And in a world in which images appear and disappear instantaneously, Willer purposely chose to let Charlone’s linger, as they tell her father’s story along with narration by her, her father, and the late distinguished actor Tim Pigott-Smith (reading from Alfred Willer’s memoirs).
“We don’t pay attention to anything, and meanwhile the world is collapsing around us. The film has a lyric and poetic way of reflecting. I felt the subject deserved time, space and silence out of humility and respect for the families and their loss,” Willer said.
Producer Charles Cohen came on board, impressed with Willer’s artistic vision and professionalism after seeing a promotional Kickstarter video she made about the film. Willer had intended to make a short film, but Cohen convinced her”Red Trees” should be a feature.
“I was very affected by the story and how the film is being executed. It’s not another Holocaust memoir of loss and tragedy. It’s a great example of the perseverance and resourcefulness of a family. It mourns those who were lost, but also celebrates those who survived,” Cohen said.
Alfred Willer never discussed what happened during the war to him, his family, friends, and neighbors with his children until they took him on a trip back to the Czech Republic for his 75th birthday. (Some home movies taken on the trip are expertly edited into the film). It was around that time that he also began to write his memoirs, upon which Marina Willer based “Red Trees.”
The only son of Vilem and Charlotte Willer, Alfred had a happy childhood in Kaznějov, where his father, one of the creators of the formulas for synthetic citric acid, worked at the Poldi Steelworks. Following the German occupation of Czechoslovakia, Vilem was fired from his job and the family was forced to move in with Jewish friends in Prague. The friends, the Epsteins, were deported to Auschwitz in 1942. Alfred’s paternal grandmother Theresa was deported to Theresienstadt, where she died of typhoid. Of all of Alfred’s many Jewish summer camp friends, he was the only one left.
Alfred and his parents managed to survive thanks to his mother’s being Christian and of “good breeding,” and his father’s usefulness to the Nazis and jobs as a consultant to paint and shoe polish factories. A Gestapo raid on their home, in which Alfred’s father successfully hid his formula for manufacturing citric acid in his wife’s recipe book, resulted in their passports being confiscated — thus dashing any hopes they had of trying to escape.
In February 1945, 15-year-old Alfred was nearly killed during a British bombing of Prague. The teen had gone to a village on the outskirts of the city to sketch an old church when British war planes mistakenly dropped 152 tons of bombs on populated areas of the Czech capital due to a navigational error during the bombing of Dresden, Germany.
During the Prague Uprising and subsequent Soviet liberation of the city in May 1945, the Willers hid in the basement of their building for days. Alfred recalled seeing people being shot on the building’s doorstep and being hanged in the streets.
Following the war, Vilem Willer decided to emigrate with his family to Brazil, where he had a brother. One of the most touching scenes in the film shows a boat’s foamy wake as Tim Pigott-Smith reads from Alfred’s memoirs a list of the the various people, things and memories the teen leaves behind in Europe forever — one of them his beloved childhood friend Lisa, who disappeared without a trace. (Alfred believed she was sent away to safety on a Kindertransport, but he was never able to located her after the war.)
“It’s been a huge learning curve for me, not only in terms of making my first feature film, but also in terms of getting to know my father,” Marina Willer said.
“My father is quite reserved with his emotions. He never talked about living through the war. He only spoke about historical facts. He never said anything about the deaths of relatives and friends, or about shootings that happened right in front of him,” she said.
Willer said her father was finally ready for the film to be made, and to help his daughter create this legacy for her 10-year-old twins, Dylan and Alfie.
Willer was initially moved to make “Red Trees” as a political statement in response to the global refugee crisis and growing nationalism and xenophobia. She hoped to make a film that would inspired positive attitudes toward migration, diversity and multiculturalism.
“When people are dislocated, it can end up being a gift to the receiving country, as it was with my family,” said the Brazilian-born filmmaker.
As time went on, the project took on a more personal meaning for Willer.
“It’s moved everything around me in terms of family. I feel much closer to my origins. Going into this film, I didn’t realize how close I would come to feel toward the people in it, and how much better I would understand my father,” she said.