Red Trees is director Marina Willer’s exploration of today’s refugee crisis, mirrored in the story of her own family. It is a story that circles between Europe and Latin America; just one example of the cultural and racial richness of a world in which migration is a fact of life.
Marina is a designer, film maker and partner at an internationally renowned design agency. She tells the story of her father and her grandfather and how theirs was one of only twelve Jewish families to survive the Nazi occupation of Prague during World War Two. At the war’s end, they fled from Czechoslovakia to a new life in Brazil, where her father Alfred Willer grew to become a successful and influential architect.
The past is brought vividly to life by the voices of Alfred and narrator Tim Pigott-Smith. In the present day, the camera of Oscar-nominated DOP César Charlone explores the architecture of Prague and the industrial landscape, now in ruins, where Alfred’s father worked as a chemical engineer. Alfred describes his complex family tree, drawn from all parts of central and eastern Europe, culminating in his German father’s marriage to Charlotte, the gentile governess to a wealthy Jewish family in Prague.
Despite the approaching shadow of war, Alfred enjoys an idyllic childhood in the young Czechoslovak Republic of the 1930s, where his enthusiasm for drawing reveals that he is colour blind.
In 1939, Hitler’s armies invade. Alfred’s father loses his company post and family home, but is shielded from Nazi bureaucrats by Alfred’s gentile mother, their German citizenship and his father’s expertise in processing citric acid, a harmless food additive considered essential to the Nazi economy. Alfred witnesses the destruction of Jewish life in Prague, with transportations, suicides and the enforced wearing of the hated yellow star. Close friends and family are lost to the Holocaust. Alfred’s childhood sweetheart Lisa is sent with the Kindertransporten to London and disappears from Alfred’s life; one of the many losses that Alfred endures until liberation in 1945.
In London, Prague and Rio de Janeiro, Marina reflects on the emotional damage her father suffered as a childhood witness to the savagery of fascism. Alfred’s early life under occupation is contrasted with the colour and energy of Brazil, a world of economic extremes, but also of sensuality and racial diversity.
Marina considers her life in London, where she runs her design business and where her twin sons, 8 year-olds Alfie and Dylan, go to school. She loves the cultural mix of the city but is fearful of Isis-inspired atrocities and right-wing reactions to migrants, especially Muslims. She describes her father’s love of drawing, a passion to create that she has inherited and is now passing on to her children.