During her short life, artist Charlotte Salomon was little known. But in the years since she was killed at Auschwitz in 1943, at age 26, Salomon’s art and life story have been preserved. She’s been the subject of museum shows, books, theater productions, and now an animated biopic called Charlotte, which premiered this week at the Toronto International Film Festival. Keira Knightley voices Salomon, and Sam Claflin (best known for his role as Finnick Odair in “The Hunger Games” movies) stars as the artist’s love interest, Alexander Nagler. That filmmakers, Éric Warin and Tahir Rana, were able to attract these A-list actors is a sign that Salomon is anything but under-recognized now.
What explains Salomon’s posthumous rise? Large-scale exhibitions originating in Europe, for one thing. The most recent one came in 2017, when the Jewish Cultural Centre in Amsterdam mounted the first exhibition of the complete series that defined Salomon’s short career, “Life? Or Theatre?” The 800 gouaches on view testified to the horrors Salomon witnessed as a Jew living in Germany during World War II—and to the unexpected happiness she found while living as a refugee on the Côte d’Azur in France. In between images of Nazis swarming in the streets of Berlin, there are tender pictures of lovers and sunbathers rendered in Matissean shades of cerulean and lime.
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Feminist art historian Griselda Pollock, who wrote a book on Salomon, once called the artist “extraordinarily brilliant,” saying that she was making “work under conditions where you couldn’t think anyone would create anything.” Yet when it comes to Salomon, the focus, ironically, has been on everything other than her art. Charlotte similarly places a greater emphasis on Salomon’s family drama and the anti-Semitism that led to her demise. The result is a melodrama that aims less to analyze her art than it does to consider the conditions that made it possible.
We see, early on, how Salomon’s childhood pushed her toward art, and how attitudes toward Jews and women during the first half of the 20th century nearly kept her away from it. In one memorable sequence, Salomon, still not yet a teenager, visits the Vatican with her upper middle-class family and lies on a floor, gazing upward at Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling. Rays of light stream in, and the young girl is awestruck.
Having started out studying fashion design in the mid-’30s, Salomon was later admitted to a state-run arts academy, despite her Jewish identity at a time when the Nazis had already ascended to power. In Charlotte, a college-aged Salomon is shown sketching a classmate. While most of her cohort fix on this classmate’s features by carefully plotting out the proportions of her face, Salomon takes a more expressionistic approach, tackling the woman’s lemon-colored shirt and rendering its contours in an unnatural purple.
By the late ’30s, the Fauvism-inspired style Salomon favored in her art was deemed a criminal act. In Munich in 1937, the Nazis staged the first “Degenerate Art” show, which was intended to showcase art that Adolf Hitler deemed “an insult” to Germany because it was abstract or unlike life itself. Included were paintings by Marc Chagall, Paul Klee, Franz Marc, and many more. In the film, Salomon visits the show with a friend and is awed by the innovation on view. “At least they’re not burning the paintings,” she tells her friend. “Not yet,” her friend says. Not too long after, while painting a vase with flowers in a studio, Salomon is called into a dean’s office and kicked out of art school because she is Jewish. In 1939, Salomon was sent off by her parents to the South of France, where she took up residence with her grandparents, who lived with the millionaire Ottilie Moore.
The filmmakers seem fascinated by how Salomon continued working amid such bizarre circumstances. In tribute to this, they fill Charlotte with striking animations, many of them rendered in bright hues, and juxtapose touching scenes with ones intended to tug at the heartstrings. Their depiction of Kristallnacht, the night in 1938 when Nazis besieged Jewish communities throughout Germany, features horrifying images of Nazis beating people in the streets and shop windows being smashed. Yet later we’re given pleasing views of the Ligurian Sea.
Amid this historical unrest, directors Warin and Rana have sugarcoated parts of Salomon’s biography in an attempt to make it suitable for a mass audience. They make clear that death haunted Salomon—her grandmother, for instance, is shown unsuccessfully attempting to hang herself, and then ultimately succeeding in throwing herself out a window. Later on, Salomon discovers that her mother drowned not in an accident, as she long thought, but by her own hand. “I feel it inside me, the same demon that altered so many of my family,” Salomon breathlessly muses in the film.
What Warin and Rana do not disclose, however, is that Salomon’s grandfather is known to have sexually abused his relatives. Salomon herself may have been among his victims, according to Griselda Pollock. Mary Felstiner, the artist’s biographer, has theorized that Salomon may have even wanted to kill him for it. (Some have suggested that she eventually did murder him, given that such an event is depicted in a painted letter she made, but her work also does not always portray her life accurately.)
Then there’s the issue of Salomon’s art. What did it mean to her, as an artist who knew she very likely could die soon? Although Warin and Rana try to bring her paintings to life in sequences where they are formed before our eyes, the filmmakers never get close enough to answering that question in a nuanced way. Whether she saw her work as a method for archiving a life story that might forever be lost, as countless others were in the Holocaust, or merely as a form of aesthetic escapism, or as some combination of the two, is largely shelved in favor of romance and suspense.
By the film’s end, Salomon is pregnant with the child of Alexander Nagler, a German Jewish refugee whom she married in 1943. In the course of obtaining their marriage license, Nagler was forced to reveal his Jewish identity to French authorities, who had previously not recorded it, and the Nazis soon came for the newlyweds. Both were taken away from the countryside, and Salomon was brought to Auschwitz, where she was likely gassed. The filmmakers show none of this. Amid all the commotion, they linger on beautiful trees that just barely shake in the wind. Salomon kept a steady eye on the violence around her. Rather awkwardly, the filmmakers can’t bring themselves to do the same.