Steven Heller | Reviews

Reinventing The Holocaust Narrative

I own a binder filled with over 100 documentary, propaganda, and theatrical films about Nazi Germany and the holocaust. Most are very depressing. I’ve sat through the marathon film Shoah twice, not the most pleasant way to spend nine consecutive hours. I’ve seen almost every American and European-made Holocaust and Nazi-related movie from start to finish that I can find (except The Grey Zone, which was too depressing even for me). I’m morbidly obsessed with this horrid period where the malignancy of Hitlerism ravaged a continent and, as Marina Willer noted during a recent screening of her brilliant new documentary Red Trees, “interrupted” peoples’ lives simply for the crime of being born Jewish.

I admit that I am somewhat seduced by Nazi visual effects—the regalia, public spectaculars, and militaristic hypnotics. This yin and yang of evil deed and powerful design wreaks havoc with my emotions. I watch the films in my binder as a way to be close to yet separated from this wretchedness. But Willer’s Red Trees is nothing like other holocaust material I’ve ever seen. It will be interesting to see, at this moment in history with ultra-right nationalism on the rise, whether her film will alter the way the holocaust is perceived by a new generation.

Alfred Willer, Prague 2015

A graphic designer and partner at Pentagram in London, Willer, who was born in Brazil where her father took haven after surviving Nazi occupied Prague, has written and directed an intensely personal document—and a gorgeously moving and tenderly filmed cinematic work based on her father Alfred’s vivid remembrances about his family’s survival when most Jewish families in Prague perished.

At a recent screening introduced by Michael Bierut in the QUAD Cinema (newly designed by Paula Scher), Willers noted that for a long time she wanted to tell her father’s story without resorting to the familiar documentary clichés of the Holocaust. Apologizing for what she called the contemplative nature of the film, it was clear she wanted her film to examine her father’s soul as well as his experience. This was accomplished through a compassionate narration by the late British actor Tim Pigot-Smith speaking her father’s words, interspersed with actual clips of her father’s own voice, and additional dialog by her brother, young children, and herself, who appear in frequent cameos. The exquisite cinematography of contemporary landscapes and seascapes, streets, and buildings further removed any resemblance to the common holocaust genre.

A sprinkling throughout the film of vintage snapshots of Alfred as a child and young man, as well as those of his handsome father, a chemist who invented the formula for citric acid that we use today in food as a preservative, anchors the story in its time. There are striking shots of abandoned ruins of Czech factories made of concrete with curiously human features, like a Golem, where Alfred Willer’s father worked. There was one in particular of an abandoned “cloak room” in a factory where rubber boots, helmets, and overalls hung like cadavers from the ceiling that added a touch of the surreal. Yet with the exception of a scene showing the empty cell blocks of the infamous “model” KZ or Concentration Camp Terezin, there are none of the usual evidentiary images of KZ horrors, or portraits of Reinhard Heydrich (“the Butcher of Prague”) or of Hitler.

Koksovny Factory, Outskirts of Prague

Willer claimed in her opening remarks that people are not interested in seeing these clichés (which I call Nazi porn) any longer. To do justice to her father, and the other survivors of Nazi oppression, savage depictions of German atrocities are no longer as impactful as they once were. In its subtle genius, Willer’s Red Trees (an allusion to the fact that her father is color blind) changes the tenor of the holocaust narrative from an unimaginable, and therefore dismissible, act of evil into a singularly human, redemptive experience. Rather than focus on the obvious tragedy, Willer traces her father’s Prague and post-Prague life as an architect in Sao Paolo, Brazil, where he raised and inspired his children to become creative people, and immeasurably contributed wisdom and love to his grandchildren.

Red Trees is not what you’d call a happy film, but it is uplifting. And through its direction, writing, cinematography, and music it sheds light on how survival is not just about escaping misfortune, but realizing how important it is to appreciate the joy of living.

Mayrau Factory, Outskirts of Prague

Posted in: History, Media

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