How a Canadian film is animating the difficult story of an underappreciated artist

·5 min read
Charlotte, a Canadian-French-Belgian co-production starring Kiera Knightley is set for a theatrical release after playing at TIFF last year.  The film tells the story of Charlotte Salomon, the German Jewish painter who fled Nazi Germany for the south of France in the late 1930s.  (Elevation Pictures - image credit)
Charlotte, a Canadian-French-Belgian co-production starring Kiera Knightley is set for a theatrical release after playing at TIFF last year. The film tells the story of Charlotte Salomon, the German Jewish painter who fled Nazi Germany for the south of France in the late 1930s. (Elevation Pictures - image credit)

Charlotte co-director Tahir Rana will admit that he did not know who Charlotte Salomon was until he saw a script about her life — a Jew who fled Nazi Germany only to end up in Vichy France, and whose discovery of a family history of suicide and mental illness prompted a series of autobiographical paintings that would outlive her.

"Charlotte sort of felt that the walls were closing in on her," said Rana. Her response was to make art.

The Canadian director felt compelled to make this story come to life.

"I begged and pleaded to get the opportunity to work on the film," the Mississauga-based director said. "Once I read the script … I realized what an extraordinary life she led and this story was ... so valuable to tell."

Her story is now being told in an animated film set to release in theatres today.

One person who has long known Salomon's story is the film's producer Julia Rosenberg. When Rosenberg was 13, she received a copy of Salomon's Life or Theatre?, which she says many consider to be the first graphic novel.

WATCH | Canadian director of Charlotte on telling difficult stories:

"Charlotte's work was really important to me. And over the years, I would offer it as a gift to certain people who came into my life who were important to me," Rosenberg said.

The idea for the film came to her one morning when she was out for a run. "I had the idea that Charlotte Salomon drew her life story. So I needed to produce a drawn version of her life story as well," she said.

Ten years after that morning run, Charlotte is ready for release. Along the way the animated feature, which played at TIFF last year and stars Kiera Knightley, became a Canadian-French-Belgian co-production.

The life of Charlotte Salomon

Born in Berlin in 1917, Salomon's life was marked by tragedy; her namesake aunt died by suicide before she was born, as did her mother when she was a young girl.

She was able to enroll in the State Art Academy of Berlin in 1936, despite restrictions that allowed only 1.5 per cent of the school to be Jewish. Around January 1939, Salomon was sent to be with her maternal grandparents in the south of France in order to escape Nazi Germany.

Elevation Pictures
Elevation Pictures

Learning about her family history of mental illness and suicide while living in southern France prompted Salomon to create Life or Theatre?, an autobiographical work comprised of 769 of the more than 1,200 gouaches she painted in a matter of months.

"She was very hurried, almost kind of had the idea that her time on this Earth was limited, that there [were] forces coming to get her," Rana said. "I like the way that Charlotte used her artistic talent to sort of triumph over those forces that were coming to get her and that she left behind a legacy for herself."

In 1943, at age 26 and five months pregnant, Salomon was taken with her husband by the German Gestapo from the south of France and sent to Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, where she was killed, more than likely on the day she arrived.

A few months prior, she had entrusted her artworks to her doctor, and they eventually found their way back to Salomon's father and stepmother, who survived the war.

Animating dark stories

Using animation to tell a story dealing with suicide, ethnic violence and war presented Rana with what he called a rare opportunity, at least on this continent.

While he says Japan and countries in Europe have long used animated films as a medium for telling dark, mature stories, Rana notes that in North America, animation isn't often used in adult dramas.

"There's a lot of tools in the toolkit that an animator can use in terms of conveying emotion and expression and colour palette."

Elevation Pictures
Elevation Pictures

The film included real examples of Salomon's art, and Rana was able to take other inspiration from her work. "Charlotte never used the colour black in her painting, so we never used it in her film," he noted.

Belief in the power of animation as a storytelling tool is a sentiment that Rosenberg shares. She cites Flee as another recent example of an animated film telling a story containing heavy subject matter.

Flee centred on the story of Amin Nawabi and his flight from Afghanistan to Denmark as a refugee. It was nominated for best documentary feature film, best international feature film, and best animated film at the most recent Academy Awards.

"I think the big message is that animation is a medium, not a genre. And so hopefully audiences, by exposing themselves to other types of stories told through animation, will, will come to it," she said.


What was the Holocaust?

During the Second World War, the German Nazi regime persecuted and murdered approximately six million Jewish people throughout Europe. Jews were rounded up and sent to concentration or extermination camps to be killed with poison gas or subjected to forced labour. Some of the camps were also used for other groups persecuted by the Nazis such as Roma, homosexuals and political opponents. You can learn more about the largest of the Nazi death camps here: Life after Auschwitz.

A story still relevant today

Ilana Zackon, who writes for the Canadian Jewish News, saw the film while she was living with a 98-year-old relative and Holocaust survivor.

"I'd been hearing all of his stories about his experiences surviving Auschwitz and then watched this movie. And it kind of hit me in a much deeper way," she told CBC News.

Zackon believes it's important that stories like Charlotte continue to be seen and shared today.

"I think a lot of people think anti-Semitism ended when the Holocaust ended, and that's very inaccurate," she said.

As the Holocaust fades from living memory, the importance of art grows, says Zackon.

"When we don't have survivors to tell their stories … [art] allows [the] audience to feel like an emotional reaction in a way that you wouldn't get from other means."

Rana feels Charlotte Salomon's life story is reflected in today's world as well.

"Her story, to me, it really resonates now, even as a refugee story, as, you know, somebody who's been marginalized because of her religion and her race. These are themes that are still echoing in the world today, unfortunately."