Over my decade writing about watches, one thing has become clear to me: while lovely creations of art and engineering, timepieces are nothing more than ordinary objects without the people wearing them leading extraordinary lives. My favorite watch stories to read and write are not about the money fetched at auction, some new limited edition, or which celebrity has signed on to wear a certain brand. They are those about the exploits of people wearing watches, going to the Moon, sailing around the globe, or simply living a full life. Looking back though, there is one story of a wristwatch and its owner that stands above the rest: that of World War II veteran and prisoner of war, Charles Woehrle, and his Patek Philippe. It is a story of great courage, humility, and generosity, and one that is the subject of the new documentary film Stalag Luft III: One Man’s Story.
In 2011, about a year into my tenure at HODINKEE, I was introduced, by a mutual friend, to Louise Woehrle, a Twin Cities-based documentary filmmaker. Louise was embarking on a film about her Uncle Charles, who had led an extraordinary life, first as a soldier, and later as a filmmaker himself. In her background research for the film, Louise came across some correspondence between Charles and a Swiss watch company, Patek Philippe, while he was a prisoner at the infamous Stalag Luft III camp in Poland. When she asked her uncle what it was about, he spun the most incredible tale.
Charles Woehrle was a B-17 bombardier in the Army Air Corps, based out of England. On a bombing sortie over France, his plane was shot down by the Germans and he was captured and transferred by rail to one of the Nazis’ largest prison camps (one that would gain fame thanks to the film, “The Great Escape”). There he lived in miserable, cruel, and tedious confinement for over two years. To pass the time, he resorted to reading, tinkering, and even took up needlepoint.
One day he came across a small ad from a Swiss watch brand that read, “If you’d like to learn more about Patek Philippe, mail the form below and we will send you a brochure.” Charles did just that, also adding a note to the effect of, “I would like to buy one of your watches, if you’ll allow me to pay for it after the war.” Remarkably, months later, a package arrived at the camp containing a Patek Philippe. Woehrle’s watch became a sensation among the other prisoners, not due to the prestige of its maker, but because it arrived at all, a small piece of a world outside, perhaps a symbol of hope. He wore it for the remainder of his incarceration and for decades beyond, living up to his promise to pay for it.
Would the story end there, it would be remarkable enough. But sometime in the 1980s, Woerhle’s house in St. Paul, Minnesota, was burgled and his watch was stolen, an ignominious loss of a special watch that was hard won and worn hard. In 2011, when Louise heard this whole story, she knew it had to be part of the film she was making. She also decided to contact Patek Philippe. Patek took interest in the story but then went an extra step, sourcing through various networks a similar example of the watch it had sent Charles Woehrle back in 1944. Patek restored the watch and presented it to Woehrle in a ceremony in New York City. The story created a minor sensation at the time, with coverage from The New York Times and the Today Show. That was about the time I met the nonagenarian Charles Woehrle as well, and wrote a story about him and his watch for HODINKEE. I only spent a few hours with him at his assisted living apartment in St. Paul, but his energy, grace, and humility had a lasting impact on me.
In the subsequent years, I lost track of Charles Woehrle and his niece, Louise, though occasionally I would think about him. This past summer, Louise contacted me to say that her documentary about her uncle was finally finished. Charles died a few years ago at the age of 98, having lived about as full a life as anyone could hope for. Stalag Luft III, the film, is a fitting tribute. I was invited to the very first screening of the movie in Minneapolis in early October, a private event attended by close family and friends, as well as members of the film crew. The movie is largely told in Charles Woehrle’s own voice, with extensive interviews with him, interspersed with archival film footage and photography, as well as some reenactments. Patek Philippe also held a private screening later in October in New York, which was attended by Woehrle’s grandson, who inherited this special timepiece. The film is currently being shopped around to several film festivals and will likely begin a limited release nationwide in 2019. The title sequence can be seen here.
Stalag Luft III: One Man’s Story, is not a film about a watch; the Patek Philippe is only a chapter in a long and extraordinary story. This film comes at a time when we need stories like Charles Woehrle’s, full of optimism and kindness in the face of great adversity. It’s also a great reminder that, even for those of us in the watch collecting world, it really isn’t about the watch, Patek or otherwise; it’s about the people who wear them doing extraordinary things.
You can view the title sequence for the new film below and find more information about release dates and festivals here.