Marina Willer’s Red Trees is a film of bold, vibrant color. The director illustrates her father Alfred’s early life in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia with a diverse array of images—stunning landscapes, tranquil interiors, and evocative close-ups—all composed with a serene sense of balance that evinces Willer’s background in graphic design. Though the film includes shots inside the Terezin concentration camp, which served as a waystation for death camps like Auschwitz and Treblinka, Willer is less interested in evoking the immense tragedy of Hitler’s extermination campaign than in capturing the odd and sinuous nature of her family’s journey from Central Europe to Brazil.
Narrated by Tim Pigott-Smith from excerpts from Alfred’s memoirs, the documentary relates how Alfred’s family survived the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia thanks largely to the fact that his father had co-discovered the formula for citric acid, a popular food preservative at the time. Because of his valuable knowledge of chemistry, the Willers were one of only 12 Jewish families left in Prague by the end of World War II. Soon after the war’s end, the family fled to Brazil, where Alfred later began a career in architecture. Willer also weaves in her own personal voiceover, which touches on her children, her life in England, and her fascination with her father’s past.
With its multi-layered narration, whimsical digressions, and placid tone, Willer’s approach often resembles that of W.G. Sebald in his novel Austerlitz, another story of a Czech Jew displaced by the Holocaust. Sebald incorporates illustrative photographs into his text, while Willer uses images of hands, fabric, and train tracks to suggest the mélange of cultures, experiences, and history that’s shaped herself and her father. Unlike Jacques Austerlitz, the protagonist of Sebald’s novel, whose rootlessness causes him intense unhappiness and anxiety, Alfred is remarkably grateful for his own multiculturalism. In one scene, his son suggests that each time his father learns a new language, he discovers something about himself.
Capturing the eerie beauty and haunting pathos of abandoned spaces, Red Trees is sometimes reminiscent of Homo Sapiens. But where Nikolaus Geyrhalter resists providing an explanation for his film beyond its title, the narration here tends toward redundancy and often outright triteness. In one scene, while showing the wall of the Pinkas Synagogue where the names of the Czech Jews murdered by the Nazis are inscribed, Willer offers the following: “All these names. They’re real people. They lived.” It’s a true statement, of course, but it’s also an inadequate summation of the immense moral tragedy represented by these names. Given the expressive power of the film’s images, where even a shot of a corroded piece of old factory equipment feels suffused with meaning, the banality of Willer’s voiceover only goes to prove the old cliché that a picture is worth a thousand words.