Directed by Eric Warin and Tahir Rana.
Starring Keira Knightley, Brenda Blethyn, Jim Broadbent, Sam Claflin, Henry Czerny, Eddie Marsan, Helen McCrory, Sophie Okonedo, and Mark Strong.
An account of German-Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon living in the south of France between 1941 and 1943.
Tacky thought it might seem to decry the well-trod storytelling and aesthetic tropes of Holocaust movies, there is something to be said for any film which tackles any subject from a new angle. Such is the primary appeal of Tahir Rana and Éric Warin’s animated biopic Charlotte, which while far from doing full justice to its subject’s story, nevertheless serves as an evocative showcase for her life’s work.
Charlotte centers around young German-Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon, who between 1941 and 1943 painted almost 800 individual works as part of a series dubbed “Life? or Theater?: A Song-play,” which she created while hiding from the Nazis in the south of France.
Curiously, the film’s end credits dedications note that some consider Salomon’s compendium to be the world’s first graphic novel, and so it’s perhaps apt to consider Charlotte a “graphic novel adaptation” in a sense, given that it’s much more than a mere animated Holocaust film. For starters, the Nazis are less physically apparent throughout than they are a peripheral spectre, and most of the specific Holocaust context is saved for the film’s bleak final passage.
Though Salomon was killed at just 26 years of age after being captured and sent to Auschwitz, Rana and Warin seem a lot less interested in trundling over the typical sights of concentration camps and gas chambers – which are never seen here – than they do tracing Salomon’s own fascinating if ultimately tragic lineage.
While much of Charlotte’s upbringing is tempered by the prejudice of the era and the Nazi mob gaining an increasing foothold in Germany – prompting her to depart for France to live with her grandparents – there is just as much deference paid to her growth as an artist and the sad, strange dynamic of her family.
Charlotte’s own mother died when she was young, and the dark pall of mental illness looms large throughout her direct family line; both of her grandparents express suicidal ideations at various points in the story, and Charlotte seems determined to defy the same fate. Heartbreakingly, her life would be cut brutally short all the same.
Charlotte’s life story takes some truly surprising turns for anyone not familiar with it; far from merely a bittersweet piece about a brilliant young artist cut down in her prime, this is a twisty, often shocking film about a deeply dysfunctional family unit. Without giving the game away, the doc includes a wildly unexpected sequence that adapts an incriminating confessional written by Salomon herself and discovered in 2015. The nature of this revelation may, for some, distract from the film’s primary function as a celebration of her art.
But Salomon’s life’s work is nothing if not lovingly presented throughout regardless. Scene transitions often creatively incorporate her paintings, and married to the circumstances of her untimely death, the glimpses of her pieces should leave audiences ruminating on the freedom to both create and live that we so often take for granted. As is inevitable with most all artists who die young, it’s impossible not to think on the work Salomon could’ve given to the world had she lived into old age.
As a piece of animation itself, Charlotte feels rather primed to divide, some gravitating towards its willfully simplistic art-style, while others may feel that its aesthetic pales catastrophically compared to the works of its featured artist. The relatively inexpressive facial animations certainly threaten to hold the audience at arm’s length, though the flowery sweep of Michelino Bisceglia’s score pitches in to do much of the emotional heavy lifting.
The film also benefits from its staggeringly impressive cast, led by Keira Knightley whose typically plummy vocal tenor belies her character’s greater complexities, though the actress certainly gives herself over to the darker aspects of Salomon’s story. Mark Strong also turns in fine work as Charlotte’s artistic mentor-turned-lover Alfred Wolfsohn, while Jim Broadbent gives an extremely Jim Broadbent voiceover performance – that’s not a bad thing – as Charlotte’s ornery grandfather.
The wider cast counts among its cohort Brenda Blethyn, Sam Claflin, Eddie Marsan, Sophie Okonedo, and the late Helen McCrory in her final role, though many of these parts are small enough that you might not even be able to discern who’s voicing who.
All in all this film feels a little like a charming, intriguing sketch that could’ve used a few more drafts to be brought up to fully captivating scratch. As an off-kilter take on the horrors of the Holocaust, though, it certainly serves its purpose, while presenting a sliver of untold history that deserves to be more widely known.
Charlotte doesn’t quite hit the expected emotional highs, but as a tribute to the transcendent, immortalising power of art, it’s far more than just an animated film about the Holocaust.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.