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A Pentagram Designer Explores Her Family’s Escape From Nazis

Partner Marina Willer, who designed the Tate museum’s logo, attempts her most personal project yet: a film about her family.

Pentagram partner Marina Willer, the designer behind the iconic the Tate museum logo and identity for The Serpentine Gallery in London, has long integrated film into her personal and professional projects. Her film “Exposed” introduced the 2011 exhibition of architect Richard Rogers at the the Design Museum, and her shorts–including the award-winning “Cartas da Mãe”–have been shown all over Europe.

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But her latest film, Red Trees marks a significant step in her filmmaking career. For one, the subject matter is much more personal: The film tells the story of her family’s escape to Brazil from Nazi-occupied Prague (her family was one of just 12 Jewish families to survive the city’s occupation). It’s filmed by cinematographer César Charlone, who is known for City of God and The Constant Gardener. “Charlone challenged me to make a film that was not overly design-y and not just for designers, but for everyone,” says Willer.

Red Trees, which is now raising funds on Kickstarter, is told from the point of view of Willer’s father, who was a child at the time of Prague’s occupation. His father, Willer’s grandfather, was a chemist, and one of the scientists to discover citric acid, the natural preservative in citrus fruits. It was because of that formula that the family was able to escape relatively easily–the Czechs wanted to make sure it was kept safe from the Germans. When the Gestapo visited the Willers’ house, her grandfather hid the formula in his wife’s recipe book.

Once safely in Brazil, Willer’s father grew up to become an architect, a discipline he arrived at through his fond memories of the buildings in Prague. Today, Prague’s architecture is still in tact in large part because the occupation spared it from extensive bombing. Willer uses empty buildings and abandoned factories as a storytelling device in the film, showing a city left relatively unscathed, but only superficially.

“It’s not just the Jews that suffered but a whole country that lost an opportunity because of the occupation,” she says. “[Czechoslovakia] was flourishing before war, it was great example of democracy and success. It lost a lot of its potential in Jewish culture, and as a country and in its industry because of what happened there. I wanted to use those buildings that contain those memories, and leave a lot more for the imagination.”

One thing you won’t find in the film: the images of Hitler and concentration camps that are common in movies about World War II. Instead, Willer opted for a more poetic translation of that time in history. She draws a parallel between her family’s story–and the stories of many people displaced during the war–and the refugees seeking asylum today. “The story becomes much more relevant [because of the refugee crisis],” she says. “The point of telling personal stories is that they become universal, and we can learn from history to not make this mistake again.”

With the first half of filming behind them, Willer and her team have brought the project to Kickstarter in hopes of attracting enough funds to make the second half. Read more about Red Trees here.

About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.

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