Just prior to her murder in Auschwitz in October of 1943, artist Charlotte Salomon completed what many consider the world’s first graphic novel. She was 26 years old and six months pregnant when she died.
Her unique, avant-garde work, titled, “Leben? oder Theater?: Ein Singspiel” (Life? or Theater?: A Song-play), seamlessly blends fact and fiction in its 1,325 expressionist-style gouache paintings and overlay transparencies.
Whittled down to over 800 pages, it is an entire play replete with characters (fictionalized versions of people in her life), original text, literary references, and musical cues. It speaks of love, uncertainty, suicide and possibly even a murder committed by the artist.
Entrusted in the care of a non-Jewish family friend ahead of her deportation, since its recovery, the semi-autobiographical, multi-media work has been subjected to censorship, speculation and scholarly research.
Its newest incarnation is as an animated film, titled “Charlotte,” with an all-star cast of voice characters. The film opens in the United States on April 22, and in Israel on April 28. It is also available for viewing via a variety of streaming platforms.
Although the artist’s life and work also have been documented in books, exhibition, and films, this is the first time anyone has approached the narrative using a visual style evocative of the one used by Salomon herself.
“Charlotte” features voice acting by a team of A-listers, including Keira Knightley (as Charlotte), Brenda Blethyn, Jim Broadbent, Sam Claflin, Eddie Marsan, Sophie Okonedo, Mark Strong, and the late Helen McCrory in her final role prior to her death in April 2021.
“We’re doing this for Charlotte. She has been overlooked and under-appreciated. This film is meant to bring attention to her,” said Julia Rosenberg, one of the film’s producers.
Born in Berlin in 1917, Salomon is primarily known for “Life? or Theater?” which has remained in print. The seed for “Charlotte” was originally planted when Rosenberg received a published copy of “Life? or Theater?” as a bat mitzvah gift four decades ago.
“I don’t remember who gave it to me, but someone brought it into my life and it struck a chord with me as a young woman,” Rosenberg said.
“It was a classic coming of age story she told about herself, and I saw myself in her story. As a girl, I found resonance in it even if I couldn’t articulate my feelings about it at the time. As an artist, she gave me a lot to think and dream about,” she said.
Salomon’s romantic yearnings spoke so strongly to Rosenberg that she bought a copy of “Life? of Theater?” for every man she fell in love with — “Like a totem,” she said.
Writer David Bezmozgis was brought in to write the final draft of the film’s script. Having written and directed live-action movies, Bezmozgis ensured that the animation did not paint a falsely rosy picture.
“The film changed tonally when I came in. It became more serious. I made it more cinematic, which can be done by inventing sequences that are highly visual, where you let the images do the speaking,” Bezmozgis said.
Unlike Rosenberg, Bezmozgis was only vaguely familiar with Salomon before joining the project. He delved into “Life? or Theater?” and a variety of secondary sources to learn more about her.
Salomon was the only child of a prosperous German-Jewish family. Her father, Albert Salomon, was a surgeon. His study of mastectomies and breast x-rays eventually led to the widespread use of mammography many years later. Salomon’s mother, Franziska Grünwald Salomon, died in 1926, when her daughter was a young girl. Salomon was told it was from influenza.
When she was 16, Salomon left school after the Nazis came to power in 1933. She applied to the prestigious Vereinigte Staatsschulen für freie und angewandte Kunst (United State Schools for Pure and Applied Arts) in 1936, and managed to be accepted despite her lack of prior training and the strict quotas on Jews accepted to institutions of higher learning. She studied there for two years, until she was forced to leave due to increased enforcement of Nazi race laws.
After Kristallnacht in November 1938, Salomon’s father was interred at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Upon his release, he and Salomon’s stepmother, opera and classical singer Paula Salomon-Lindberg, decided that the family must flee Germany. They sent Salomon in January 1939 to join her maternal grandparents at the villa of a wealthy American named Ottilie Moore in Villefranche-sur-Mer, who was sheltering refugees. Salomon’s parents went to Amsterdam, planning to meet up later with their daughter and head together to America.
Salomon’s parents didn’t make it out of Holland in time, and were deported to the Westerbork transit camp. They managed to escape, and survived in hiding until the end of the war.
In the meantime, Salomon’s grandmother died by suicide in the south of France. It was then that it was revealed to Salomon that her mother had also taken her own life, as had her aunt and a number of other relatives.
Salomon and her grandfather were interred at Gurs, but they were released due to her grandfather’s ill health. Upon returning to Villefranche, Salomon was in extreme emotional distress from learning of her family’s history of suicides and the political situation. She felt her days were numbered as both a Jew in Europe, and as someone genetically predisposed to mental illness.
This was the catalyst for Salomon’s 18 months of feverish work producing “Life? or Theater?” between 1940 and 1942. The artist expressed enigmatically that it was a work depicting her life and the life of family members — including things that may or may not have happened.
“Charlotte Salomon invites us to think about truth and representation,” Rosenberg said.
Upon the opus’s completion, Salomon dedicated it to Ottilie Moore and handed it to a family friend named Dr. Moridis, for safekeeping.
“C’est toute ma vie” (It’s my whole life), Salomon told the doctor.
In October 1943, Salomon was deported along with her new husband, Austrian-Jewish refugee Alexander Nagler, to Auschwitz. It is believed that Salomon was sent to the gas chambers immediately, while her husband died a few months later of exhaustion.
According to Bezmozgis, there was a robust discussion within the film’s creative team as to what to put in the script, and what to leave out. It wasn’t easy in some instances, because of the elision of fact and fiction in “Life? or Theater?”
It was decided to include a scene in which Salomon kills her grandfather by poisoning an omelette she prepared for him. The official record states that his death was due to a head injury, however a 35-page letter in painted lettering surfaced in 2011 in which Salomon confessed the poisoning to her former lover Alfred Wolfsohn.
It appears that the letter was originally included in “Life? or Theater?” and removed by her parents, after they retrieved the work after the war from Ottilie Moore, who had received it from by Dr. Moridis.
“There was enough supporting material, including a ‘death mask’ drawing Salomon purportedly made of her grandfather as he was dying in front of her. We could make a strong case that this could have really happened,” Bezmozgis said.
The creators, however, decided to stay away from hints in Salomon’s work that her grandfather was a sexual molester. A 2017 article in The New Yorker makes a case for the sex abuse, even linking it to the suicides of Salomon’s female relatives.
“To include this in our film would be to validate that it [the sexual abuse] happened, and we don’t have enough evidence to do so. I’m okay with crimes of omission, but not of commission, in a biographic film,” Bezmozgis said.
Eliad Moreh-Rosenberg, curator and director of the art department at Yad Vashem, advised against dwelling on the sensational aspects of Salomon’s life, rather than on Salomon’s multi-layered and innovative artistic point of view.
“It’s more important to focus on her amazing artwork. She was a gifted visual artist with a great sense of color and original composition. We see the influence of cinema, photography and cartoons on her expressive style. She blew categories away and pushed boundaries,” Moreh-Rosenberg said.
While “Life? of Theater?” was gifted to the Jewish Museum of Amsterdam by Salomon’s parents, Yad Vashem holds 24 of Salomon’s works in its collection. Eleven are currently on display in a special gallery dedicated to Salomon in Yad Vashem’s art museum. In addition, Salomon’s story and some reproductions from “Life? or Theater?” are included in the section of Yad Vashem’s history museum dealing with the rise of Nazism in Germany.
“If Salomon created such a powerful artwork at age 23, who knows what she could have created later,” Moreh-Rosenberg said.
“In a way, she epitomizes the loss brought about by the Holocaust for the Jews and humanity,” she said.
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