Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 16, 2017

Red Trees

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 6:03 pm

When I received an invitation from a publicist to review “Red Trees” that opened yesterday at Lincoln Plaza and Quad Cinema in NYC, I was initially undecided since the documentary was about surviving the holocaust. Having seen dozens of films, both fiction and nonfiction, about this crime against humanity starting with Alain Resnais’s 1956 documentary “Night and Fog” that I saw as a college freshman in 1961, I was not sure what more could be said. I finally decided to review the film since it was produced by Charles S. Cohen who owns the Cohen Media Group and Quad Cinema. Over the years I have developed a deep respect for Cohen Media Group films and those shown at Quad Cinema. Suffice it to say that “Red Trees” meets the lofty standards set by Mr. Cohen, who decided to produce the film after seeing a shorter version.

Although the images summoned up the word holocaust are black-and-white photos and historical footage of skeletal victims at Auschwitz, “Red Trees” is instead a lyrically evocative picture of the world of the Czechs both past and present as director Marina Willer and her father Alfred visit the places where he grew up. Even when he recalls terrifying moments, his daughter never forgets that the overarching purpose of the film is to convey the joys of civilized life in places like Kaznêjov and Prague where the Willer family prospered economically and culturally until the Nazis began their brutal occupation in 1939.

The Willer family was a paradigm of secular and educated Czechoslovakia, in no way different from the Christian elite. Indeed, the contribution that the patriarch Wilem was making helped the family become one of the twelve that survived the genocide. He was an industrial engineer who developed the process for manufacturing citric acid, a chemical key to preserving food. Even with this to his credit, he narrowly escaped being sent to a concentration camp. The film cites Hitler’s words in 1933: “If science cannot do without Jews, then we will have to do without science for a few years.”

His son Alfred was born in 1930 and demonstrated an talent for art that was as formidable as his father’s was for science and technology. Not long after he began painting landscapes, the teachers noticed that the trees were red—a dead giveaway that he was colorblind. This did not dissuade him from a life in the arts and eventually becoming an outstanding architect. The title of the film refers both to his minor disability as well as his and his daughter’s belief that skin color should not matter when it comes to human relations. After obtaining passports in 1947, the Willers headed for Brazil, a country that symbolized the kind of racial diversity these progressive Jews believed in and that is now under mounting attack across Europe and the USA. Although the main purpose of Marina Willer’s film is to tell her family’s story, you can’t help but think that it is 2017’s most important anti-fascist statement.

I kept thinking of Stefan Zweig as the film unfolded. He lived in Vienna that like Willer’s Prague was a symbol of civilized European values. And like Willer, he chose to live in Brazil, emigrating there in 1940, not long after he had narrowly escaped Hitler’s death squads. In 1941, he wrote “Brazil: Land of the Future”, a book that saw his new adopted homeland as free of Europe’s “race fanatics”, its “frenzied scenes and mad ecstasies of hero-worship”, its “foolish nationalism and imperialism” and its “suicidal fury”. As it turned out, Zweig’s despair, and his wife’s, over the horrors overtaking Europe became too much of a burden. They committed suicide a year later, becoming Hitler’s victims just as much as those who died in concentration camps.

Marina Willer made this film as a way to get closer to her father, who had never spoken much about his ordeals as a Jew in Prague during WWII. In making the film, she was able to piece together a story that is as much a commentary on the suffering of the Jews as it is of the general problem of people being driven from their homelands because of ethnic or racial hatred or–even worse–murdered. In the press notes, she says, “Red Trees is a personal project that merges the story of my family with something that’s really universal—what’s going on today with the world’s refugees. The story becomes much more relevant because of the refugee crisis. The point of telling personal stories is that they become universal, and we can learn from history to not make this mistake again.”

Now based in London, she drew upon the cinematographic talents of her Brazilian countryman César Charlone, who won an Academy Award for “City of God”. They filmed in abandoned factories where her grandfather worked and in synagogues that contained the names of all the Jews who had died in concentration camps. Suffice it to say that Marina Willer’s background as a designer and Charlone’s stunning visual acuity make watching this film something like a visit to a museum.

In addition to telling her family’s story, we also learn about Czechoslovakia’s resistance to Nazism that includes a closing credit to some of the country’s resistance fighters. When I was very young, WWII was still very much alive in the minds of my parents and their generation, including those who scheduled what we saw on television. In the mid-50s, something like “Hogan’s Heroes” would have been totally unacceptable. Instead, we saw “The Silent Village” that can now be seen on Youtube. This British documentary made in 1943 told the story of Lidice, a Czech town that was wiped off the face of the map because it was accused of supporting the resistance fighters who assassinated Reinhard Heydrich, considered the main architect of the holocaust. After he was killed, Hitler ordered the execution of every male adult in Lidice and that the women and children be sent to concentration camps. Afterwards, every building was burned to the ground and salt was spread across the soil in order to prevent anything from growing again. As Marina Willer points out, many villages and towns were renamed Lidice in solidarity with the victims as were newborn children. It may be said that if “Red Trees” had a subtitle, it would be “Lidice”.

The film ends with the words of Alfred Willer that are germane to the social crisis we face today. “I have never understood an attachment to one nation, one culture. We are a mixture, and in this there is beauty. I’m Jewish, Protestant, Catholic, Czech, German, Brazilian, English– I’m everything. What a salad.” What did Stalin call such people? Rootless cosmopolitans? People such as Stefan Zweig and Alfred Willer were naturally drawn to places like Vienna, Prague and Rio de Janeiro where their catholic and progressive sensibility could flourish. Ultimately, this is the task we face today and one that “Red Trees” undertakes, to make a world where cosmopolitanism reigns supreme.


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