February 18, 2020

Director Marina Willer focuses on father’s perilous past in ‘Red Trees’

Architect Alfred Willer is the subject of the documentary “Red Trees,” directed by his daughter, Marina. Photo from YouTube

Architect Alfred Willer, who was a member of one of only 12 families with Jewish roots that survived the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, is the subject of a biographical documentary crafted by his daughter, Marina Willer. The film’s title, “Red Trees,” is inspired by the fact that, at age 10, Alfred Willer was drawing trees and made the leaves red, leading him to discover that he was colorblind.

In her movie, Willer says that making the film has brought her closer to her father and helped her understand that she hadn’t fully known him. During a recent interview, she said that he never talked about the horrors he witnessed under the Nazi occupation.

“Most survivors of the Holocaust block any memories and never want to talk about it. The film made us talk about things, travel to places together as a family and made me study the subject a lot,” she said.

Willer makes her directorial debut with this movie. Born in Brazil, where her father’s family relocated after the war, and now living in London, she chose the late English actor Tim Piggot-Smith as narrator and also includes interviews with her father. Alfred Willer was born in Kasnejov, Czechoslovakia, in 1930. His father, Vilem, whose father was Jewish, was a scientist and worked in a chemical factory.

The Nazis invaded the country in 1939, and a couple of years later, Vilem lost his job due to restrictions on Jews. The family was evicted from the company apartment and moved to Prague, where Vilem managed to find work as a technical consultant to two chemical factories. Although he lived under numerous anti-Jewish measures, the family survived.

Willer said that her father was able to survive because of his marriage to a German gentile woman, and his unique scientific skills. He was one of the inventors of the formula for citric acid, which is used to simulate the taste of lemon and as a preservative. He kept hiding the formula, she said, so he remained useful.

“It is luck, too,” Willer added. “I remember my grandfather always used to say, ‘If the war lasted another two weeks, we’d have been next.’ ”

In her documentary, Willer and her brother take their father back to Czechoslovakia and revisit locations from his past. Among these is the site of what was called the Lidice Massacre, during which 1,300 residents of the village, some six miles from Alfred’s home, were rounded up by the Nazis in 1942. All the men were killed, and the women and children were sent to concentration camps. The massacre was conducted as revenge for the murder by the Czech resistance of Gestapo officer Reinhard Heydrich, known as the “Butcher of Prague.”

As they travel, they pass places connected to people and events that Alfred remembers. He says, “This person was murdered,” or “This person was taken to a concentration camp” or “This person committed suicide.”

In 1945, after the Nazis were defeated, crowds began to gather in the streets, he remembers. “I see people murdered in the street — on both sides,” he says. “You learn not to look, but you never forget.”

Two years later, at the urging of Alfred’s uncle, the family immigrated to Brazil, where Alfred became an architect, and which the filmmaker describes in the documentary as a nation of color and the most racially mixed country on earth. She points out in the film that Brazil welcomed millions of war survivors — Jews, Czechs, Germans, Poles, Italians, Japanese and Hungarians — even Nazis.

During her interview, Willer stressed that she and her father are a mixture of ethnicities. Although her non-Jewish mother is of German origin, the filmmaker is aware of the Jewish influences in her life. 

“My family is a fruit salad, as my father says. The other side was Protestant. But the culture, the love and curiosity for knowledge, [the] unstoppable interest in studying and learning, is completely Jewish to me and [although] unsaid, in a way I think it would come across in the film,” she said. “It’s not the only culture that brings that with them, but my father’s upbringing was very broad, and he has inspired us and mostly my children, and I really hope to show that as a gift to us.” Opens Sept. 15.


“Bobbi Jene” — Bobbi Jene Smith, an American dancer, left Juilliard in 2006 to fulfill her dream of dancing with Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company, where she spent 10 years as one of its stars. Elvira Lind’s documentary follows her departure from Batsheva and her return to the U.S. in pursuit of a solo career as a performer and choreographer. Opens Sept. 22.

“Marshall” — Based on the early legal career of future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, this narrative film depicts Marshall (played by Chadwick Boseman) in 1940 as he is sent by the NAACP to the conservative town of Greenwich, Conn., to defend the Black chauffeur-butler of a wealthy and prominent matron. She alleged that the chauffeur repeatedly raped and then tried to kill her. The NAACP also hires a white Jewish lawyer, Samuel Friedman (Josh Gad), to aid Marshall in the trial. Opens Oct. 13.

“Aida’s Secrets” — This documentary features two brothers, now in their 70s, who remained unknown to each other for decades. Both were born in the Bergen-Belsen displaced persons camp after World War II and sent to different destinations as toddlers. The nephews of one brother reunite the two and film their story as the long-lost siblings also reconnect with their mother, who continues to harbor secrets about their origins. Opens Oct. 27.

An archival family photo from “Aida’s Secrets,” about brothers born in the Bergen-Belsen displaced persons camp who were separated as toddlers. Photo courtesy of Music Box Films


“Holy Air” — In Shady Srour’s comedy that satirizes Israeli politics, a Christian Arab living in Nazareth is married to a modern Arab woman who runs a feminist foundation. He devises a scheme to make a killing by bottling and selling air that was supposedly breathed by the Virgin Mary during the Annunciation. But to ensure success, he must enlist the help of leaders from among the country’s Jewish politicians, the head of the Arab Mafia and officials from the Catholic Church. Opens Nov. 17.

“Darkest Hour” — On the heels of the film “Churchill,” which depicted British Prime Minister Winston Churchill near the end of World War II, this film portrays Churchill (Gary Oldman) as he takes office when England is on the brink of war. He faces a choice between negotiating a peace treaty with Nazi Germany or challenging Hitler and fighting for his nation’s freedom. Opens Nov. 22.