How a Canadian film brings the difficult story of an underrated artist to life

Charlotte Co-director Tahir Rana will admit he didn’t know who Charlotte Salomon was until he saw a script about her life – a Jewess who fled Nazi Germany to Vichy in France, and whose the discovery of a family history of suicide and mental illness sparked a series of autobiographical paintings that would survive him.

“Charlotte kind of felt the walls closing in on her,” Rana said. His response was to make art.

The Canadian director felt compelled to bring this story to life.

“I begged and begged for the opportunity to work on the film,” the Mississauga-based director said. “Once I read the script…I realized what an amazing life she led and this story was…so precious to tell.”

Her story is now being told in an animated movie that hits theaters today.

One person who has known Solomon’s story for a long time is film producer Julia Rosenberg. When Rosenberg was 13, she received a copy of the Book of Solomon Life or theatre?, which she says many consider the first graphic novel.

WATCH | Charlotte’s Canadian director on telling tough stories:

Charlotte’s Canadian director tells tough stories

Canadian director Tahir Rana and writer Illana Zackon on the importance of telling Charlotte Salomon’s story. 2:09

“Charlotte’s work was really important to me. And over the years I would give 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 going for a run. “I had the idea that Charlotte Salomon drew her life story, so I had to produce a drawn version of her life story as well,” she said.

Ten years after that morning run, Charlotte is ready to go out. 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 Solomon

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

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

The film poster features one of the images from the autobiography Life or Theatre? which some attribute to the first graphic novel. (Elevation photos)

Learning of his family history of mental illness and suicide while living in the south of France prompted Salomon to create Life or theatre? an autobiographical work composed of 769 of the more than 1,200 gouaches she painted in a few months.

“She was very rushed, she almost felt like her time on this Earth was limited, that there was [were] forces that came looking for her,” Rana said. “I love how Charlotte used her artistry to kind of triumph over those forces that came looking for her and that she left a legacy for herself.”

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

A few months before, she had given her works to her doctor, and they eventually found their way to Solomon’s father and mother-in-law, who survived the war.

Animate dark stories

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

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

“There are a lot of tools in the toolkit that an animator can use to convey emotion, expression, and color palette.”

The film uses real life examples of Charlotte Salomon’s work. The artist was killed at age 26 in the Auschwitz concentration camp. (Elevation photos)

The film included real examples of Solomon’s art, and Rana was able to draw inspiration from his work. “Charlotte never used the color black in her painting, so we never used it in her film,” he noted.

The belief in the power of animation as a storytelling tool is a sentiment shared by Rosenberg. She quotes To run away as another recent example of an animated film telling a story containing a heavy subject matter.

To run away centered on the story of Amin Nawabi and his escape from Afghanistan to Denmark as a refugee. It was nominated for Best Documentary Feature, Best International Feature and Best Animated Feature at the last Oscars.

“I think the big message is that animation is a medium, not a genre. And so I hope audiences, by exposing themselves to other kinds of stories that animation tells, will come to that” , she said.

The animated documentary Flee is another recent example of the medium of animation being used to tackle heavy subject matter. (TIFF)

What is the Holocaust?

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

A story still relevant

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

“I had heard all of his stories about his experiences surviving Auschwitz, and then I watched that movie. And it 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 with the end of the Holocaust, and that’s very inaccurate,” she said.

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

“When we don’t have survivors to tell their stories… [art] allow [the] audience to feel like an emotional response in a way that you wouldn’t get through other means.”

Rana believes that Charlotte Salomon’s life story is also reflected in today’s world.

“His story, to me, really resonates now, even as a refugee story, as, you know, someone who was marginalized because of their religion and race. These are themes that resonate still in the world today, unfortunately.”