The fact that there are so many films, both documentaries and narratives, about the Holocaust speaks to multiple needs. There’s the need to remember those who died, but more often the incredible power of survival of so many despite horrific and unimaginable circumstances. Yet the sheer number of stories of those who still live—or at least lived past the end of the Holocaust—represents an immense contradiction in relation to the number of people who died and were not able to have their stories told. Steven Spielberg’s choice to put a girl in a red coat in color when the rest of Schindler’s List was in black and white was extremely meaningful, but the thousands around her who also died remained nameless. Though it might appear that there a lot of Holocaust movies, some of which are accused of serving as “Oscar bait,” there are still so countless stories left to tell.
The new documentary Red Trees comes from filmmaker Marina Willer, who created the short film that turned into this full-length feature as an exploration of her family’s life in Prague before the rise of the Nazis and their subsequent exodus to Brazil. Marina’s family was one of just twelve Jewish families to survive World War II in Prague, one statistic among the many in this film that are disheartening, including the decimation of the Czechoslovakian Jewish population from over 300,000 to less than 15,000 by the end of the war. On her Kickstarter page to fund the original short film, Marina explains that, even back in 2015, “war, violence and persecution has left one in every 122 humans on the planet a refugee, internally displaced or seeking asylum.” Her film is meant in part as a wake-up call to governments not to turn their backs on families seeking survival.
It is, primarily, the story of her father, Alfred, who was a man of prominence in Prague thanks to his contribution to the invention of citric acid. Tim Piggot Smith acts as the narrator, speaking as Alfred, explaining how he would hide the formula in his wife’s recipe book whenever the Nazis would come to search for it so that he could avoid become irrelevant and likely being killed. Alfred tells harrowing tales of what life was like in Prague for the Jews once the Nazis rose to power, and it’s hard not to find parallels to present-day cinematic explorations of dystopias. The Handmaid’s Tale might be referenced more for its terrifying depiction of the total loss of reproductive rights for women, but its swift and systematic disenfranchisement of an entire gender, conveyed in one scene where all the women who work at a company are let go and escorted from the building, bears a frightening resemblance to Alfred’s recollections of Jews having to ride in the last car of the tram, not allowed to sit even if surrounded by empty seats.
It’s important not to forget, and that’s a big component of what Marina is doing here by showcasing her father’s life. Yet there is also light to be found in this particular film, which finds the Willer family successfully emigrating to Brazil, where Alfred describes his first action as looking for a banana to eat since he has not had one in seven years. The multicultural society found in Brazil stands in stark contrast to the divisions and dehumanization that he found in Prague, creating a path for him to move into a new career as an architect. Brazil was a true melting pot that welcomed in so many survivors from World War II, and for the Willer family, it was their chance to start over.
This film’s title comes from the way in which Alfred discovered at a young age that he was colorblind. When he drew trees, he would color the leaves red, which to him meant nothing but allowed him to make an important realization. Those types of moments are what make this film an invigorating and affirming experience, one that lingers on people and moments to truly capture the feelings they stir. Cinematographer César Charlone, who has worked with director Fernando Meirelles on City of God and The Constant Gardener, collaborates with Willer to create what is described as an “impressionistic visual essay” that pays great tribute to one man who survived when many didn’t.
Red Trees opens on September 15th in New York at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas & Quad Cinema and in LA at Laemmle Royal.