Painter Charlotte Salomon‘s life has proved a recurring subject of fascination over the years. A German Jewish woman, she came into her own in her art under Nazi rule, creating the epic autobiographical 769-painting series Leben? oder Theater? (“Life? or Theater?”) while in hiding during World War II, before being captured and murdered in Auschwitz at just 26, while she was pregnant. Salomon has been the subject of various books and plays, a 1981 film, and even multiple operas. The latest work to tell her story is an animated biopic, Charlotte. Animation offers multiple possibilities that previous adaptations of Salomon’s life didn’t; frustratingly, the film doesn’t often take advantage of them.
The optimal medium for a narrative about Salomon may be a graphic novel. (Indeed, there has been at least one such telling already.) Leben? oder Theater? is often cited as an early example of the form, consisting as it does of a story told through sequential, linked still images. A comic is best positioned to meaningfully convey the impact of Salomon’s work, and if it could replicate her sensibility to relate her life, then all the better. But then, given how heavily Leben? oder Theater? draws from Salomon’s own life, such an adaptation may almost be redundant. It may be the case that Salomon has already told her story better than any subsequent artist could. Animation, a close relative of the graphic novel (the two arts cohered and have evolved roughly in tandem,) offers new potential for illustrating Salomon’s life literally becoming her art, or even vice-versa. (Loving Vincent attempted such an approach with Vincent van Gogh, to mixed results.)
Disappointingly, the film adheres to a generic artistic style, the kind of standard, almost anonymous look common to many lower-budget European cartoons. It seldom attempts to replicate Salomon’s painting aesthetic. (Loving Vincent at least convincingly and impressively looks like a van Gogh painting in motion.) We don’t even see much of her work within the film proper, which is surprising for a story about an artist. In select moments, however, directors Eric Warin and Tahir Rana do manage to assemble striking compositions, often in wide shots that dwarf the characters against their surroundings. It emphasizes the weight of history bearing down on Charlotte and her friends and family.
Telling Holocaust stories is already a sensitive proposition, even before you have to grapple with a figure like Salomon, who’s become famed in no small part because of her deeply upsetting fate. Even before then, her family was plagued by mental illness, suicide, and antisemitism, and the film’s handling of these issues is spotty. Some scenes address the frustration of living with seemingly endemic depression with a level of grace that would almost make the film ideal for classroom viewing; then others, like the suicide of Charlotte’s grandmother, are so histrionic and ill-calculated as to almost be embarrassing. This is particularly troublesome since the film favors the family issues so much that it’s more about them than it is about her art. Again, it may simply be the case that Charlotte Salomon already expressed her pain, hopes, and memories in a way no one else could replicate.
Charlotte is now playing in select theaters.