The story of the Holocaust is, in no small part, the story of the attack on art and artists. When Charlotte Salomon was butchered by Nazis in Auschwitz on Oct. 10, 1943, she was a double enemy of the Reich: She was both Jewish and a rising painter experimenting in expressionism – one of the forms that the Nazis smeared as “degenerate.” She left behind a remarkable body of work, most especially the over 1,000 gouache, pencil, and pen-and-ink images that made up her autobiographical Leben? oder Theater?: Ein Singspiel (trans: Life? or Theatre?: A Song-Cycle). It’s that work and its creation that anchors Charlotte, the animated biography of her life, loves, artistry, and suffering.
Directors Éric Warin and Tahir Rana make a dramatic leap in their collaboration: The latter is best known for his work directing episodes of Nickelodeon’s Welcome to the Wayne and Netflix’s upcoming Angry Birds: Summer Madness, the former for family-friendly 3D CG flicks like Leap! However, there’s nothing childish about the dueling tragedies in Salomon’s life: the threat of antisemitism and the increasingly disturbing family secrets that plagued her. Fleeing the Reich for the seeming safety of her grandparents’ estate in the south of France only exposes her more and more to the dark lineage, plagued by a long history of suicide and mental health issues.
Wisely, the filmmakers don’t attempt to emulate the look of Salomon’s art – except in brief interludes, as she paints the world around her. Instead, they capture the essence of her vision, its earthy tones and simple lines. Or, at least, one aspect of her work. Life? or Theatre? was created in a two-year fury, and there was nothing but experimentation and evolution within its pages, with traces of contemporaries like Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Egon Schiele, Erich Heckel, Paul Gauguin, and Marc Chagall (an admirer of Salomon’s work), but also distinctly her own. In the style the filmmakers adopt, there’s something of the simple observations of New Yorker cover artist Adrian Tomine (whose graphic novel work was recently adapted for the screen in the live-action Paris, 13th District). It’s easy to imagine the temptation to make the film much more experimental, working in Salomon’s techniques of transparent overlays and interwoven texts. Instead, Warin and Rana work toward a final image, one initially disconcerting in its beauty but powerful in its symbolism. Charlotte is a story of a loss, of a young artist who tried to outrun horror and process it through her art.
Similarly, the decision to cast Knightley plays against what might be expected from a Holocaust movie. However, her work as Salomon adds another level of delicate pathos that, like the visual choices, never lets the horror around her overtake who she was as an artist and as a young woman. The end of Charlotte may be set in stone from the flash-forward introduction in which she hands off her work to a family friend for safekeeping, but that’s not all that the story of Charlotte Salomon contains. Her romances (most especially with Alfred Wolfsohn, the pioneering vocal coach and therapist voiced by Strong), her efforts to wrangle with her family’s long history of suicide, the abuse of her grandfather (Broadbent). That closing, haunting image is a reminder of what we lost, and what she created, in that all-too-brief window before she was murdered.
What Rana and Warin have also created is a quiet warning. As a new tide of fascism and monomaniacal cultural oppression looms on the horizon, they make Salomon’s story a tragic reminder that fleeing a nightmare may mean more than just keeping it in your rearview mirror.
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