PORT TOWNSEND — It’s a love letter and a hero’s journey: “Stalag Luft III: One Man’s Story,” the next Port Townsend Film Festival Pic.
Starting Monday, the movie will stream online for a full week, with tickets at $10 via PTFilmfest.com. A documentary that interweaves animation, archival footage and intimate interviews, the movie tells the tale of an Eighth U.S. Air Force bombardier shot down and captured by the Nazis.
Charles Woehrle lived to tell about it. He was somehow able to speak, in detail, about what so many World War II veterans could not: two years as a prisoner of war. And Woehrle, who died in 2015 at age 98, lived a full life after returning home to Minnesota, ultimately inspiring his niece, Louise Woehrle.
As director of “Stalag Luft III,” she’s his co-storyteller. The younger Woehrle brought her documentary to festivals across the country, winning prizes including the Audience Choice Award in Port Townsend. “Stalag Luft III” screened during the 2019 festival, sparking applause and weeping in the theater.
She’s now seeking distribution for her film on a platform such as PBS or Netflix.
PTFF Pics, a year-round online program that began last month, streams selected films along with an interview with the director, so this time, festival Executive Director Janette Force interviews the ebullient Woehrle.
The 25-minute conversation is a companion to the film, revealing the director’s process, unexpected events and all.
Woehrle still marvels at what happened when she set out to re-enact the day her uncle’s B-17 bomber was shot out of the sky.
To film the scene, Woehrle first had to find a real B-17. In early 2013 she learned one of the warbirds would be taking history buffs for short flights from the airport in Anoka, Minn., not too far from her studio in Minneapolis.
After five months seeking permission to use the plane, she not only received the go-ahead, but also got the usual $1,500 fee waived after its caretakers heard some of her uncle’s story.
Woehrle’s cast and crew had just four and a half hours to finish the sequence: Lt. Charles Woehrle is on a bombing mission when his B-17 is hit by enemy fire. The survivors jump, with Woehrle parachuting down last.
Woehrle salutes her camera men, Bill Carlson and Chip Johnson, for their handiwork in making the scene one that takes the viewer’s breath away — all while the plane stayed safely on the tarmac.
She had invited her nonagenarian uncle to come out to the airport to see the set. Don’t feel pressure, she told him, but “everyone woud love to meet you,” the guy who lived through what they just re-created.
“He happened to come out at that golden hour of the day, when we were close to winding up,” so the cinematographers filmed him approaching the plane. She waited, giving him time to take it in.
Then Woehrle asked: “What do you see, when you look at this B-17?”
What he said “was just magical,” she recalled. It became the opening scene for “Stalag Luft III.”
In his postwar life, Charles Woehrle started Empire Photosound, a film company, then went to work for 3M. He was also a musician, playing piano alongside his niece, who played the flute.
Woehrle remembers her uncle as a man of great gentleness; she also watched what happened when he began to speak of his wartime hardships.
“Just out and about, he’d be talking … and people would start gathering around,” Woehrle recalled.
“He had this incredible photographic memory … and he knew, when he was in the prison camp that this was historical, this was important. It’s why he kept good notes and used his camera, to document it.”
Charles’ photos, taken with a Voigtlander camera, were later used in the Nuremberg trials, Woehrle added.
Force, for her part, said this movie, sparked by one man’s experience 77 years ago, fits the current moment.
“At a time where the world is looking for inspiration,” she said, “Uncle Charles is the ideal role model.”
Jefferson County senior reporter Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-417-3509 or [email protected]