Film & Television

‘Charlotte,’ a Short but Remarkable Life in Art 

Seventy-nine years ago, a young Jewish woman was arrested by Nazis in the South of France. She was taken to Auschwitz where, despite being five months pregnant — or more likely because of it — she was immediately murdered. As horrifying as this was, what’s even more horrifying is there’s nothing remarkable about it. Charlotte Salomon was only one of approximately six million Jews, two-thirds of Europe’s total, killed during the Holocaust.

What is remarkable, however, is that Salomon left behind more than 1,000 expressionist paintings depicting her short, tragic life. “Only by doing something mad can I stay sane,” she explains to her lover, “And I don’t know how much time I have left.” Entrusted to a friend, Leben? Oder Theater? Ein Singespiel (Life? Or Theatre? A Song-play) her autobiographical work, includes images of her family, nature, and Nazi persecution in bold, colorful strokes evocative of Marc Chagall (who was impressed by her work). Combining her striking images with written word, Salomon’s collection is often credited as the first graphic novel. Today, it hangs in Amsterdam’s Joods Historisch Museum.

Charlotte, the full-length animated feature by Éric Warin and Tahir Rana, traces Salomon’s life from her teens as an art student in Berlin, through her escape to France, and her eventual capture and murder. The film includes an impressive cast of voices, including the late Helen McCrory, Sophie Okonedo, Brenda Blethyn, Jim Broadbent, and Keira Knightley as Charlotte. Knightley, along with Marion Cotillard who portrays Charlotte in a French version, produces.

Until the early 1930s, Charlotte lived a privileged life with her surgeon father (Eddie Marsan) and opera singer stepmother (McCrory). As anti-Semitism creeps and then sweeps through Germany, the Salomons take her out of school but, thanks to her own talent and her father’s war record, she’s accepted into Vereinigte Staatsschulen für freie und angewandte Kunst (United State Schools for Pure and Applied Arts), despite the “unfortunate matter of her race.” However, she is eventually expelled; her avant-garde paintings are considered “degenerate” by Hitler’s more literal-minded Reich.

A brief affair with her stepmother’s vocal coach, Alfred Wolfsohn (Mark Strong) gives Charlotte her first taste of love and then betrayal. Wolfsohn, who suffers from PTSD following his service for Germany on World War I, shares a philosophy that will later inspire Charlotte’s work. “What matters is not that life loves us, but that we love life.”

Nazi violence reaches a new level in November 1938 with Kristallnacht and Dr. Salomon is arrested and taken to Sachsenhausen concentration camp. He returns several weeks later in deplorable health and decides to send Charlotte away to France on the pretext of caring for her elderly Grosspapa and Grossmama. She stays briefly in an idyllic haven run by a wealthy and benevolent American Ottile. But when her cruel and overbearing grandfather realizes she’s fallen in love with a fellow German refugee, Alexander Nagler (Sam Claflan), he takes her away. 

At this point Charlotte, who is only in her early twenties, must face another horror. Grosspapa reveals to her that “a disease in the blood” runs through her family, resulting in mental illness and multiple suicides. Whether she fears for her life at the hands of the Nazis or worries that she will suffer the fate of her mother, aunt, and grandmother, Charlotte understands that her time on Earth may well be limited. This realization spurs her on to an act of desperation, which enables her to escape temporarily and devote the time left to her art.

It’s impossible not to be moved by Charlotte. Salomon’s affecting tale of artistry and resilience has inspired novelizations, plays, documentaries, a feature film, a ballet, and an opera. Here, her story is told through simple line animation and almost matter-of-fact voiceover. 

But, the movie itself feels a bit too ordinary for the life of such an extraordinary person. It’s far more fulfilling when we see depictions of Salomon’s work. At times, but not often enough, Warin and Rana use her bold colors and distinctive brushstrokes as visual segues between scenes. I found myself wishing they had taken this technique further, embracing and elaborating on her unique style the way Loving Vincent did a few years ago.

Whether or not Charlotte is as visually groundbreaking as it might have been, the film is well worth seeing — especially now. Holocaust denial continues to spread; a 2020 survey found that 63% of Americans under 40 did not know that six million Jews died and nearly half couldn’t name a single concentration camp. Earlier this year, the United Nations General Assembly felt compelled to adopt a resolution that condemns denial and distortion of the Holocaust. The resolution expresses the U.N. Member States’ shared concern about “the growing prevalence of Holocaust denial or distortion through the use of information and communications technologies” and urges them to “reject without any reservation any denial or distortion of the Holocaust as a historical event, either in full or in part, or any activities to this end.” The Holocaust “will forever be a warning to all people of the dangers of hatred, bigotry, racism and prejudice.”

Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations Human Rights Chief, underscored this in a speech against intolerance, racism, and antisemitism she made to the Italian Senate’s Extraordinary Commission. Speaking about the dangers of hate speech, Bachelet warned, “By heightening the emotions of their supporters through campaigns of misinformation and disinformation, they gain media attention, and votes — but they also drive deep, violent, and profoundly damaging wedges through societies. It exposes [targeted people] to humiliation, violence, discrimination, and exclusion — exacerbating underlying social and economic inequalities and fueling deep grievances.” 

She also quoted a Holocaust survivor who said, “It happened, so it could happen again.”

Charlotte’s story ends with her capture in 1943. But, the film adds a bit of real-life pathos to her animated journey by including documentary footage of her parents. Against the odds, both her father and stepmother survived. 

After a few moments of memories, an interviewer asks Dr. Salomon if Charlotte’s death was fate, if she was always destined to die young, regardless of the Nazi’s “final solution to the Jewish question.” He snaps out his answer. 

“Absolutely not.” 

Charlotte is available to rent on Apple TV+.

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