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Charlotte is the second Holocaust-themed animated bio-pic to bow on the fest circuit this year. But, unlike Where Is Anne Frank, it’s not aimed at young audiences; tracing the last 10 years in the brief life of German artist Charlotte Salomon, the film deals head-on with depression and suicide as well as the Nazis’ genocidal war. Why use animation to tell such a harrowing story? In the hands of directors Eric Warin and Tahir Rana and their creative colleagues, it’s the perfect choice. The 2D imagery, a potent representation of Salomon’s preferred medium, gouache, allows us to see the world from her inspired, painterly perspective.
Warin (Leap!) and Rana (whose storyboard credits include the series George of the Jungle and Inspector Gadget) have made a film that is, as a familiar opening title proclaims, “based on a true story.” But more than that, Charlotte is based on a work of art. The film is steeped in beauty at least as much as it is in sorrow, the dance of Mediterranean light — Salomon would spend a good portion of her final fears in the South of France — a vibrant counterpoint to the creeping shadow of hatred and violence.
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations)
Cast: Keira Knightley, Brenda Bleythyn, Jim Broadbent, Sam Claflin, Henry Czerny, Eddie Marsan, Helen McCrory, Sophie Okonedo, Mark Strong
Directors: Eric Warin, Tahir Rana1 hour 33 minutes
Salomon was in her 20s, and in exile from her native Berlin, when she felt death closing in — not only because she was a Jew in Hitler-era Europe, but also because one side of her family was plagued by a predisposition toward self-destruction. That time was running out for her she was certain — and so she raced to create a series of paintings to document her memories and experiences. Titled Life? Or Theatre? — suggesting that perhaps not every entry is literally true — the collection consisted of more than a thousand visual vignettes on small sheets of paper, many of the scenes and portraits adorned with text (some consider it the first graphic novel). Salomon entrusted this fervent work to a friend; posthumously, it would be exhibited around the world, and today is housed in Amsterdam’s Jewish Historical Museum.
Salomon’s remarkable story of resilience and visionary talent has inspired plays, an opera, a documentary and a 1981 Dutch feature. Still, it’s surprising that she’s not more widely known. With its elegant style, affecting narrative and the vivid voice work of a mostly British cast, led by Keira Knightley (Marion Cotillard tops the French version), Charlotte could, in the right hands, bring Salomon’s work and biography to a wide international audience.
After a brief prologue that reveals a very young Charlotte trying to engage the attention of her fatally despondent mother, the story begins in 1933 Berlin, where the 16-year-old is being raised by her physician father, Albert (Eddie Marsan), and his second wife, classical singer Paula Lindberg (the late lamented Helen McCrory, in her final role). Theirs is a life of material comfort and privilege, but, as Jews, their situation grows more precarious each day. Paula’s latest recital is interrupted by Nazi brownshirts, and Charlotte’s maternal grandparents (Jim Broadbent and Brenda Bleythyn, both superb) leave Germany for the presumed safety of Italy.
Visiting them there, Charlotte meets an openhearted and well-to-do American, Ottilie Moore (Sophie Okonedo), while touring the Vatican. Once Ottilie joins Charlotte on the Sistine Chapel floor, where the teen has lain down in order to take in the masterpiece ceiling, a bond of nonconformist souls is forged. This, like most everything, provokes the ire of Charlotte’s perpetually belligerent grandfather. And though he’s not impressed by Ottilie’s invitation to her villa on the Côte d’Azur, within a few years he and his wife will join the refugees sheltered there.
Back home, Charlotte’s talent is so impressive that it secures her a place in an esteemed art academy, overriding what the school’s director refers to as “the unfortunate matter of your race.” He rolls his eyes when his secretary enters the room with a gung-ho “Heil Hitler” — a deft reminder that the Third Reich didn’t set up business overnight or with undivided support. But Charlotte’s aptitude can’t hold back the brutal tide for long, and she’s expelled.
The screenplay, by first-timer Erik Rutherford and David Bezmozgis (Orphan Black), points to the formative experience, for good and for bad, of Charlotte’s romance with Alfred Wolfsohn. Voiced by a broody Mark Strong, he’s Paula’s singing teacher (a relationship that could be clearer here) and a sensitive intellectual, traumatized by the atrocitities he witnessed as a teenage soldier in the trenches of World War I. He turns out to be a cad as well, a revelation that breaks Charlotte’s heart just moments before the barbarity of Kristallnacht explodes around them, the chaos affectingly rendered. The film takes care to convey the couple’s relationship as a sexual and artistic awakening for Charlotte, and to suggest the way some of Wolfsohn’s hard-won philosophy resonated with her, one jolting declaration in particular: “I couldn’t wait for life to love me” are words she’ll take to heart.
The movie, like its central figure, finds light amid soul-testing darkness, dislocation and oppressive uncertainty. After Charlotte is sent by her parents to join her grandparents in France, the film’s watercolor palette changes from shades of Old World gloom to the dramatic pink sunsets and kinetic blues of the Midi. Love blooms between Charlotte and Alexander Nagler (Sam Claflin), Ottilie’s sympathetic groundskeeper and himself a refugee. In his down-to-earth plainspokenness, Alexander is a striking contrast to Wolfsohn, and he’ll prove selfless in his devotion to Charlotte.
Her steadfast commitment to her creative work is notable, especially so when her grandmother, having suffered a psychotic episode, descends into deepening torment and her grandfather grows increasingly cruel. Alexander and a sympathetic doctor, Moridis (Henry Czerny), help Charlotte tend to the elderly couple, but the movie doesn’t pretend there are easy answers — and it doesn’t shy away from one particularly extreme choice that Charlotte makes.
As World War II rages and the Nazis occupy France, Charlotte is also faced with devastating truths about a number of suicides in her family — “a disease in the blood,” her grandfather calls it. Fearful that she too will succumb to this legacy of despair, if not to the goose-step of history, she embarks on Leben? Oder Theater? Ein Singespiel (Life? Or Theatre? A Song-play), working quickly and steadily for a year and a half, determined to capture her story and her family’s before it’s too late. “Only by doing something mad can I hope to stay sane,” she tells Alexander.
In ways that are stirring and lovely, Charlotte brings her paintings to life as she creates them, attentive to the movement of the brush and the interplay of color. The paintings that accompany the closing credits reveal how the animators (working in Canadian, Belgian and French studios) infused the film’s characters with Salomon’s aesthetic sensibility. Those characters are composed with an expressive and graceful simplicity that, combined with the cast’s fine work, captures their essence. Knightley’s performance communicates Charlotte’s youthful strength and spirited directness, combined with the uncanny wisdom of an old soul.
After Salomon’s story reaches its wrenching end, Warin and Rana offer excerpts of an interview with her father and stepmother, discussing their daughter’s posthumous artistic fame. It’s extraordinary documentary material, and a heartening testament to Salomon’s vision and her profound engagement with life. Asked whether his daughter was destined to die young, regardless of the Nazis’ murderous regime, Albert shakes off the suggestion of inescapable doom. His answer is swift and adamant: “Absolutely not.”
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations)
Production companies: January Films, Les Productions Balthazar, Walking the Dog, Sons of Manual
Cast: Keira Knightley, Brenda Bleythyn, Jim Broadbent, Sam Claflin, Henry Czerny, Eddie Marsan, Helen McCrory, Sophie Okonedo, Mark Strong, Pippa Bennett-Warner, Sadie Deogrades
Directors: Eric Warin, Tahir Rana
Screenwriters: Erik Rutherford, David Bezmozgis
Producers: Julia Rosenberg, Jérôme Dopffer, Eric Goossens, Anton Roebben
Executive producers: Keira Knightley, Marion Cotillard, Sylvia Geist, Robert Lantos, Morgan Emmery, Jean-Charles Levy, Cédric Iland, Bastien Sirodot, Jim Sternberg, Joe Iacono, Mark Musselman, Heather Walker, Nancy Grant, Xavier Dolan
Production designer: François Moret
Character designer: Uwe Heidschötter
Animation directors: Mel Olm, Cameron Hood
Art director: Jeffrey Stewart Timmins
Editors: Roderick Deogrades, Sam Patterson
Music: Michelino Bisceglia
Casting director: Kate Ringsell
Sales: Sierra Affinity
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