The animated biopic directed by Erin Warin and Tahir Rana follows the coming-of-age of artist Charlotte Salomon throughout the Second World War. Charlotte portrays how a young woman finds refuge in her craft, as she defies all odds to create her timeless chef-d’œuvre.
Charlotte Salomon was a young German-Jewish painter who had to flee from Berlin on the eve of the war that began in 1939, with the anti-Semitic policies that triggered violent mobs. Her wild imagination became a form of escapism to exorcise the loss she traversed. The separation from her parents, the death of her remaining relatives, the discovery of the suicide demon running in her family, all coalesce in the way she vented out her torment through her art. Along this existential journey of survival — as a refugee and as someone who had the urge to heal from trauma — Charlotte got acquainted with first love, disappointment, new love and embarked on the monumental quest of bringing to life her masterpiece: in less than 18 months, she completed over a thousand gouaches depicting the lives of her family, friends, and lovers.
The persevering adolescent is an example of fortitude and resilience as she reiterated that “life might not love us, be we must love life.” Her plight is crystallised in her magnum opus ‘Leben Oder Theater’ [Life? Or Theatre?]. She described her biography through images, as “a play with music” or “a film in pictures” where every memory, fantasy and wish was depicted on paper through her fervent brushstrokes.
Although she did not survive to experience the recognition she deserved, her autobiographical collection of paintings thrived and was exhibited around the world, including London’s Royal Academy, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, the Art Gallery of Ontario, and is currently housed by the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam. In fact, this animation is not the first to homage Salmon’s work. Prior to Erin Warin and Tahir Rana others were inspired to tribute the craft and extraordinary life of this woman. Examples include: the live action film Charlotte in 1981, the documentary feature Life? or Theater? in 2011, the opera Charlotte Salomon in 2014, the prize-winning publication Charlotte: A Novel in 2014, the award-winning ballet Charlotte Salomon: Der Tod und die Malerin in 2015, and several plays.
The 2022 animation has seen the light of day thanks to producer Julia Rosenberg, who cherished this story ever since she was gifted with Salomon’s Life? Or Theatre? at age 13. Keira Knightley and Marion Cotillard are the English and French voice of Charlotte, as well as serving as executive producers to the film.
Charlotte brings the ninth art (comics) to its peak. Salomon was a precursor of graphic novels and adapting her compelling existence to animation marks the perfect match to chronicle her personal and creative odyssey. Thus, her static depictions become moving pictures that glorify the art of drawing as one of the most poetic forms of storytelling.
This excruciating war piece, that brings to life the crucial years of the fledgeling painter, ponders upon the function of art. Philosophy has long debated over the topic. Thinkers and artists have discussed whether it should replicate reality or question it. Charlotte with utter puissance demonstrates how it can dismantle the horrors caused by humanity, first and foremost warfare.
Charlotte achieves this noble pursuit to such a degree that, at the end of the artist’s unfortunate via crucis inflicted by the Nazi persecution, what is left is her outstanding oeuvre that reminds the public (as one of the characters says), that “true art is about the chaos inside us.”
Final Grade: A