Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Holocaust: a beautiful, contemplative view in Marina Willer's doc, RED TREES

Marina Willer, shown below, the director and co-writer of RED TREES, is a designer by trade, and this skill is on view almost constantly in her new documentary about her father, Alfred, and his boyhood in Czechoslovakia during World War II, which has been expanded from a shorter film Ms Willer made earlier. This Jewish family, we learn in the course of the movie, was one of only twelve in Prague that managed to survive Hitler's and his Nazi's onslaught that resulted in the Jewish Holocaust. Alfred's memories are given voice by the late Tim Piggot-Smith.

Willer's film is foremost a visual treat, with some ravishing scenes of everything from foliage to factories shown in stunning color and/or composition. The filmmaker, shown at left, has taken her title from her father's childhood experience in discovering that the was color blind: He drew his trees in red rather than green.

In addition to the great beauty of her film, Red Trees is distinguished by its contemplative view of Holocaust memory, as well as by its originality. I can think of few films on this subject that come at it from anything like this perspective. (The great narrative film, Fateless, has a contemplative quality, but its engine is powered much more strongly by drama, incident, anger and compassion than is the engine of this film.)

In fact, this contemplative quality -- together with writing that occasionally seems more than a bit obvious and the viewpoint of the narrator (above) that is never questioned though it elides much and leaves out ever more --  finally turns the film into something less incisive and compelling than it might have been. Marina explains that, for years, she had not known about any of her father's history because, as did so many Holocaust survivors, he preferred to hold so much of it inside.

We understand how and why Alfred's father was kept alive by the Nazi -- his skills in chemistry was of use to the Germans -- but not how Alfred himself managed to stay alive. Since literally everyone else Jewish who was connected to the pair -- friends, family, co-workers -- were murdered or committed suicide, Alfred was certainly one lucky young man. (Perhaps we missed some of the heavily-accented English dialog along the way.)

There are a number specific details I garnered from the film that I had not known previously. Among other restrictions, Jews were not allowed to drive, so that family had to rid itself of it automobile. All along the way, Alfred ticks off one after another victim of the Holocaust, without giving us much detail of anything or anyone. He has already told us several times, "You learn not to look." Then finally he adds, "but you never forget."

Interestingly, the movie itself does little except look -- at the great beauty and/or fascinating design it finds all around and even in memory. But it never really probes, leaving us with a narrator who may or may not be particularly reliable, though he is certainly interesting. Eventually, post-war, the family relocates to Brazil, a country the filmmaker extols for how diverse and welcoming it is. Diversity? Yes. Equality? Not so much.

From Cohen Media Group and running a relatively brief 82 minutes, Red Trees opens this Friday, September 15, in New York City (at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema and the Quad Cinema), in Los Angeles (at various Laemmle theaters) and elsewhere. To view all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters, click here and then scroll down.

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