A Radical Aesthetic For A Shoah Documentary


“Adorno once said that after Auschwitz we can no longer write poetry. I say that after Auschwitz we must write poetry but with wounded words.”

— Edmond Jabès, “The Book of Margins”

Or perhaps wounded images.

A new Holocaust-themed documentary, “Red Trees,” which is opening on Friday, Sept. 15, brings that quote from the great Francophone poet and essayist Jabès to mind. The statement anticipated the film, preceding it by many years but nonetheless describing the radical aesthetic that makes “Red Trees” one of the most interesting Holocaust nonfiction films in several years.

Directed by Brazilian filmmaker Marina Willer, the film could be easily seen as another response to the conundrum of the Holocaust documentary: How do you depict that which is no longer visible?

The late Roger Greenspun has written that the nonfiction Holocaust film is inevitably about a “cinema of absence,” about finding a way to visually represent the non-presence of Europe’s Jews, murdered by the Nazis or driven into exile, their culture reduced to ashes, seemingly to nothingness. In the hands of Claude Lanzmann, Marcel Ophuls and others, the Shoah has become a sort of non-site, a place of individual memory preserved on film and video, an opportunity for the survivors to offer verbal testimony to what is too horrible — and too absent — to show. For the dead, these filmmakers offer us family albums or, as in the brilliant work of Peter Forgacs, fading home movies.

But, as inevitably happens with cinematic conventions, such strategies gradually become clichés. They lose their force and, as the last witnesses die off, there are ever fewer vehicles for this kind of filmmaking.

Willer’s father Alfred was a young man when the Nazis seized Prague. He survived, escaping to Brazil, but had never told his story to his now adult children. Using that personal gap as a jumping-off point, she asked him to break the silence. Her own contribution was to travel with her cinematographer, César Charlone (“City of God”), to Prague to find visuals to underline her father’s testimony.

Yet she resisted the obvious linkage of word and image, by now so familiar to anyone who has seen even a few films in this subgenre. Instead, she offers a hypnotic, impressionistic view of the decaying industrial landscapes that once had been her father’s workplaces and living spaces, juxtaposed poetically against his equally poetical recollections. Viewers find themselves gazing at the detritus of abandoned factories, foundries, churches, synagogues, looking through broken windows at modern urban ruins while her father’s narration is frequently read by the late actor Tim Pigott-Smith (“King Charles III,” “The Jewel in the Crown”).

At first glance, it might seem an odd way to approach this material, but it is hugely effective for most of the film’s 87-minute running time. Willer offers fleeting, astute connections to the era of military dictatorship in her native Brazil, with its indecent, but often deliberate echoes of the Nazis, and uses footage of the next generation of her family to knit loosely the narrative strands of the story. Some of the family history will be familiar — the “model ghetto” of Terezin, the suffocating skeins of post-war red tape after the Liberation — but it is her visual search for abstraction within the remaining reality, images of decrescence reflected in puddles, images of verditure seen in a car windshield, that make the film work. She eschews the “Shoah movie” cliché of desaturated color, opting instead for a vivid palette reminiscent of her native Brazil.

Ultimately, Willer backs off the radical path she has chosen and, in the last 15 minutes, “Red Trees” becomes a rather more conventional piece of Shoah nonfiction. But even with that flaw, the result is poignant and disturbingly beautiful.

Perhaps the only route left to filmmakers pondering the radical evil of the Shoah is a radical displacement of narrative, a meditation on the fragments that history throws at us. If that is true, then “Red Trees” may well point a new way into a small part of the cinematic future. But if not, the film is still a rewarding and disturbingly unfamiliar reminder of what we already thought we knew.

“Red Trees” opens on Friday, Sept. 15 at the Quad Cinema (34 W. 13th St., https://quadcinema.com/engagements/) and Lincoln Plaza Cinema (Broadway and 62nd Street, lincolnplazacinema.com).