Meet the filmmaker: Louise Woehrle presents ‘Stalag Luft III,’ a 9-year ‘labor of love’ at Vail Film Festival
Documentary film tells true story of World War II vet held in German camp during World War II
Editor’s note: The 16th annual Vail Film Festival returns Aug. 15-18. In addition to more than 40 film screenings, the Vail Film Festival also offers a workshop, panel discussion and more while again celebrating women in the industry. Festival passes start at $50. For more information, visit http://www.vailfilmfestival.com. Festival organizers recommend checking out the website beforehand for trailers, times and more information about each film. The Vail Daily interviewed three female directors attending the festival this year, including Haroula Rose (“Once Upon a River”), Louise Woehrle (“Stalag Luft III”) and Lise Raven (“Snaeland”).
“Local audiences are the best because they’re not there to do business, they’re there to enjoy film,” filmmaker Lise Raven said, “and that’s who we make them for.”
‘Stalag Luft III’ a 9-year ‘labor of love’
For documentary filmmaker Louise Woehrle, her mission with movies are to shine a light on stories that need to be told.
“I just love telling stories that touch humanity and allows us to see ourselves and others in new ways,” she said ahead of the Vail Film Festival, where she will be screening “Stalag Luft III” on Saturday and Sunday as well as participating in a Q&A. “I’m really excited to have my film screen there.”
Already, “Stalag Luft III” has gained international recognition, including a New York Times feature, segment on the “Today” show and opportunities with HBO and PBS, Woehrle said.
The nine-year “labor of love” tells a true story told by World War II U.S. Eighth Air Force Bombardier Lt. Charles Woehrle, one of 10,000 officers in Stalag Luft III — a German prisoner of war camp depicted in the iconic movie “The Great Escape.” Charles, Louise’s uncle who is also a twin of her father, helps take viewers from Pine City, Minnesota, to war-torn Europe where his B-17, the Concho Clipper, was shot down.
“My uncle was shot down in World War II, half his crew was killed and he should have died many times,” Louise said. “What makes it a special film is he’s incredible. The reason I wanted to do the film was that I saw how he was in life and I wanted to make sure that I could tell his story in a way that other people could still experience him.”
She said the film hits home with audiences of all ages, and she’s even had grown men leaving the theater in tears.
“The reason they’re crying is because my uncle exemplifies what a real man is,” she said.
Part of telling her uncle’s story through “Stalag Luft III” included filming three re-enactments, one on a B-17 with added visual effects.
How does a movie director in Minnesota find such a piece of history, let alone get access to one?
“I just get creative. I thought, where are the B-17s?” Louise said.
She tracked down a company in Wisconsin that brought in vintage planes. She didn’t “beg” them, she said, but she “bugged” them until they said it was OK to film on their B-17 from World War II. The company wanted to see clips of the movie, plans for the scene with the plane and more details to rent it out.
“It took me five months, but I got the plane,” she said, with a well-deserved sense of pride. “People don’t realize in Minneapolis we can do this kind of stuff here.”
Another re-enactment sequence details a march in freezing temperatures where many men died. “Minnesota’s a lot like Germany,” Louise says, so she found a spot there and had World War II historians help outfit the cast and set up the scene with attention to detail.
“I’m a perfectionist,” she said. “So if we’re going to get a barn, it’s going to be the right barn. There’s a lot of time that goes into scouting that.”
While Charles Woehrle helps tell the story, it goes far deeper than him.
“He really gives voice to those who couldn’t talk about the war,” Louise said.
The film also includes another re-enactment of troops writing letters home, where Woehrle family letters appear.
‘Non-fiction is stranger than fiction’
Louise has told many stories through film, but she admits to being drawn to historical pieces. She’s worked on projects about Sierra Leon, India, Haiti and remote communities in Canada.
She fell into documentary filmmaking after interviewing filmmaker Ken Burns at Sundance for a story for an airline company.
“He inspired me,” she said. “And I love non-fiction. I think non-fiction is stranger than fiction.”
Louise has never been to the Vail Film Festival but is looking forward to showing her film and spending some time here. She’ll be visiting friends in Boulder before coming to Vail, and then heading to Red Rocks to see her son, Luke Enyeart, who is touring with Ryan Bingham. (Her son also has a role in the film as a POW and composed four cues in the film.)
She’s already in development for her next documentary, a story about race and equality out of Mecklenberg County, North Carolina, where the state’s best football player was denied entry into the Shrine Bowl because he was black. The man, 70 years old now, tells his story to Louise in “Mecklenberg County.”
The Vail Veterans Program is underwriting the showing of “Stalag Luft III” at the Vail Film Festival.
“Any time you can highlight the heroism of veterans past and present, I think it’s really important,” said Cheryl Jensen, of the Vail Veterans Program.
‘Stalag Luft III’ (documentary)
Director: Louise Woehrle
Synopsis: A true story told by World War II U.S. Eighth Air Force Bombardier Lt. Charles Woehrle, one of 10,000 officers in Stalag Luft III, a German prisoner of war camp depicted in the iconic movie “The Great Escape.” Charles takes viewers from Pine City, Minnesota, to war-torn Europe where his B-17, the Concho Clipper, was shot down — portrayed through re-enactment and visual effects.
Length: 104 minutes
Showing: Saturday, 1:30 p.m., followed by a Q&A; and Sunday, 1:10 p.m.
Where: CineBistro at Solaris, Vail