Because I Was a Painter (Parce que j’etais peintre): Film Review

A meditation on suffering and beauty and how art can bridge the gap between the two.

French director Christophe Cognet's documentary looks at artworks made in the Nazi concentration camps.

PARIS -- Art made by people in the Nazi concentration camps is the nominal subject of the documentary feature Because I Was a Painter (Parce que j’etais peintre), from French director Christophe Cognet.

But this Franco-German co-production touches on more wide-ranging topics, including the indomitability of the human spirit and how the often clandestine creation of works of art in the camps also gave birth to a remarkable paradox, as it made it possible for the interned artists to simultaneously escape their day-to-day misery and at the same time record that very wretchedness and despair for posterity. This March 5 release in France did solid numbers during its first week in limited release and should be of interest to small-screen buyers, though specialized festivals and venues also should take note.  

The film is interspersed with fragments, read out loud, of a published conversation with artist Zoran Music, who was deported to Dachau and who famously said that, though he probably shouldn’t admit it, "for a painter, it was breathtakingly beautiful." It’s not the only time in the documentary that it becomes clear that artists really do have a different and often more nuanced vision of a subject that most educated adult viewers probably will think they more or less know.  

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Cognet is not exactly new to the material, as his 2004 TV documentary L’Atelier de Boris looked at Boris Taslitzky, a Communist artist who was interned at Buchenwald and though he’s not featured as an interviewee here (he died in 2005), some of his works are included. Two early quotes, "It was a landscape of death" and "What else could a painter do?" are generally emblematic of the featured artists’ perception and attitude, though of course there are individual choices and differences of opinion between interviewees Yehuda Bacon and Samuel Willenberg, who both live in Israel, Belgium-based Jose Fosty, Walter Spitzer, who now lives in Paris, and Krystyna Zaorska, from Poland.

For the artists who did not survive, curators of museums and camps who look after their work speak in their place. They show and talk about work -- ranging from quickie drawings to full-fledged paintings or sculpture -- made by unknowns, works from known artists, such as Maria Hispanzka-Neumann, and quite a few unusual pieces, including those of Dinah Gottliebova, a gifted portraitist who was assigned to work for Josef Mengele and who drew many Roma only hours before their death caused by Mengele’s "medical experiments."

The director and his editor, Catherine Zins, allow most of their points to surface organically and a recurring question is how one of art’s chief goals and pleasures, beauty, can be reconciled with something as ugly and dehumanizing as the experience in a concentration camp. One of the painters suggests that only a beautiful work of art can demand contemplation for more than a couple of seconds, while another insightfully points out the paradox that translating their surrounding world or, conversely, conjuring up past memories and worlds in their work, was the only way of coping with the world artists really knew and had at their disposal.

A less successful aspect of the film is Cognet’s attempt to tie the concentration camps as contemporary spaces into the narrative, with shots of the now practically empty landscapes -- some tourists here and there notwithstanding -- interspersed throughout. Apart from a single wall decorated by an anonymous artist, there’s nothing tangible here to suggest the presence of those that made the works discussed. The intention behind a shot of an artist at work, complete with an easel, at a camp in the present is also unclear; a single surviving drawing on a loose end of newspaper, normally kept locked away in an archive in Poland or Belgium, offers much more telling visual proof of the horror of the camps, the tenacity of the human spirit and the often-cleansing function of art and the creative process in general.

The widescreen cinematography from DP Nara Keo Kosal doesn’t quite lend a cinematic edge to the proceedings, though it does help to give audiences a good and close look at the many works discussed. Music includes pieces from Beethoven.

Opens: March 5 (in France)

Production companies: La Huit, Augenschein Filmproduktion

Director: Christophe Cognet

Producers: Stephane Jourdain, Jonas Katzenstein, Maximilian Leo

Director of photography: Nara Keo Kosal

Editor: Catherine Zins

No rating, 104 minutes