"Life Or Theatre," a documentary depicting the life of Charlotte Salomon by director Frans Weisz, which was shown at the 2013 New York Jewish Film Festival. Photo Courtesy of: Filmlinc.com.

It’s a strange phenomenon. When we try to grasp the reality of six million souls slaughtered during Adolf Hitler’s Final Solution, the mind and heart grow numb, but when we let ourselves glimpse just two lives in close up — in all their beauty or monstrosity — we at least have a chance of beginning to comprehend the incomprehensible. Several of the offerings at New York’s Jewish Film Festival this month (January 9-24), two in particular, provided that rare and important opportunity.

The Festival is in its 22 year. Sponsored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and The Jewish Museum, it is a preeminent international showcase for films exploring the Jewish experience through a wide variety of dramatic features, comedies, shorts, and documentaries. In one New York premiere from The Netherlands, director Frans Weisz revisited in a movingly original documentary, the brief life of German Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon and her magnum-opus, Leben? Oder Theater? (Life ? Or Theatre?). Charlotte’s gorgeously executed paintings resulted in a graphic novel chronicling her growing pains during Nazi occupation. In Weisz’s deft hands, the intimacy and pathos of her struggle come to life for the viewer. After her death, comparisons were made to The Diary of Anne Frank for its moving documentation of the period.

From France, Michael Prazan’s historiography, The Trial of Adolf Eichmann, explores in compelling detail, accounts of Nazi leader Eichmann’s capture, behind the scenes commentary of the 1961 trial and most essentially, fascinating and revealing footage of the accused in his bulletproof booth. Two films and two lives unraveling, one a tragic victim of the Holocaust, the other its villainous perpetrator, are caught in time and fate’s inextricable web.

Charlotte Salomon – the Artist

Her fate was the fate of millions. Born in 1917 in Berlin to a prosperous Jewish family, she showed artistic talent at an early age, fell in love with her music teacher, lived in hiding from the Nazis in the south of France with her grandparents, painted, married, and in October of 1943 at the age of 26, was captured and gassed at Auschwitz along with her unborn baby. A heartbreaking finale? Yes. But remarkable? No.

What is extraordinary is Charlotte’s awe-inspiring talent and passion that, in spite of almost insurmountable odds, drove her to produce a series of 769 paintings from 1941 to 1943 that comprise the moving testament to her life. For Franz Wiesz, he simply “fell in love with Charlotte and her work.” He’s a short, balding, leprechaun-like fellow, who admitted in the post-screening interview that he took one year of acting and that “it takes only five people anymore in the audience to make me totally happy, and look at this!” He then pointed appreciatively at the three-quarter full house. (In the documentary, Weisz’s own actor father appears on the screen in a short Berlin street-scene clip from the ’30s.)

For Weisz, his infatuation with Charlotte was hardly short-lived. Thirty years ago he made Charlotte, a feature-length dramatization of the artist’s life. (That film opened the very first Jewish Film Festival in Los Angeles.) In this documentary, black and white clips from that film are interspersed with a pastiche of gouache paintings that trace the chronology of her life — her mother’s death, and her early infatuations, studies and escape in the shadow of the Third Reich. These are pictorial renderings that grow darker and more obsessive as she feels the net tightening on her. The last few pages descend into harsh, expressionistic strokes of text alone. The whole piece in its progression is accompanied by her notes for a musical backdrop, from Nazi marching songs to Schubert Lieder, with Mahler and Mozart added for good measure.

In spite of the tragedy of such a life cut short, there is an inherent charm in the way Weisz’s camera lingers over the landscape of Villefranche sur Mer, as well as early footage of the time when Charlotte and her grandparents are taken in by Ottilie Moore, a wealthy American woman who saved as many as she could during the worst of the times.

Through clips from the earlier film, we see Charlotte played by the young actress, Birgit Doll. Twenty-three at the time of filming, she possesses just the right amount of melancholy and shyness, reminiscent of the actress Alida Valli known by filmgoers for her role in The Third Man. She’s a natural beauty who we can believe keeps her secrets close to the vest. An exuberant, overbearing music teacher and paramour is winningly played in brief segments by a younger Derek Jacobi, whose black-haired, cartoonish depiction makes him almost unrecognizable to his fans. Given the fantasy name of Amadeus Daberlohn by Charlotte in her drawings, he is the only one who seemingly captured her heart, evident in 467 caricatures of his head. His formula was a simple one: “To love life completely, you have to dare.” They entered cafes together, though the signs were clearly posted: “Nicht für Juden” (Not for Jews).

One of the finest touches in the film is Weisz’s choice to use the same actress 30 years later. We now see her wandering the alleyways of Charlotte’s past like a restive ghost, revisiting the old haunts. It’s a disconcerting but moving choice, knowing that the real Charlotte died in 1943 at 26, never to reach such maturity we see in the unadorned, lined, but still arresting face of the present day Ms. Doll.

Wiesz’s five years of research paid off handsomely in familiarizing himself with those people whose lives were touched by this extraordinary young woman. There is Gary Schwartz, the son of the original publisher of her work, who recalled the shock at finding the work in a Berlin basement. Charlotte had given the work months before her capture to a trusted doctor who had treated her grandmother’s depression. The only problem with such rich material is deciding what to keep and what to let go — perhaps the only real criticism that could be made is that Weisz has jam-packed such a repertoire of characters and images into his film that it’s at times difficult to know whether to focus on Charlotte or the staggering output of her work.

Life and death were constant companions of Charlotte’s — an aunt’s suicide, her own mother’s (a troubled and talented woman who committed suicide when Charlotte was just nine, though the girl did not find out until many years later), and finally, the grandmother, who when Charlotte was in hiding with both grandparents, repeated the deed. Mary Felstiner, a biographer, worked 12 years in researching her subject’s life and gives a moving account of her subject. But the real catalyst to the making of the current film is Charlotte’s own stepmother, Paula Salomon, whose possession of a secret confessional letter of the artist’s became the impetus for Weisz’s revisiting her life again and sharing with those interviewed its contents.

It is Charlotte’s revelation of the priority of her art, the burden of a selfish and ailing grandfather with whom she can no longer bear to share her life in hiding and how she makes the decision to go on without him — and finally, the method she chooses — that provide a devastating climax to the film.

Perhaps because it is Charlotte’s story that Weisz has placed in the forefront, the artwork serves mainly as a backdrop to the life which it depicts. The viewer who wants to experience more of the work itself is encouraged to seek out the Viking Press edition, or any other publications or images currently available in print or on the Web. Her work is little known by many today, because the whole archive belongs to the Charlotte Salomon Foundation based at the Joods Historisch Museum in the Netherlands.

The film stands tall on its own feet, but if it introduces a new audience to this artist, all the better. What we see of the work shows her sense of line to be infallible; her figures elegantly sinuous, sketchy, appearing almost weightless, even ephemeral at times. Her words are contoured, almost incidental rivers overlaying the whole. One of several of director Weisz’s “witnesses” tells us that when she was admitted to the Berlin Fine Arts Academy in 1935 (with a Jewish quota of 1.5 percent of the student body), the headmaster proclaimed that she “was so reserved she would hardly present a threat to the Aryan male.”

The threat to that “Aryan male” was to be Charlotte’s own story through imagery and its lasting reverberation today. In her own words within the letter, she confides, “I will create a story so as not to lose my mind.” Life or theatre — which is it? Certainly here is a life transformed through art. It is her misfortune to have become a victim of her times but our good fortune that her work remains to be treasured in our own.

Rating: 4 out of 4 stars

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