Artist Charlotte Salomon comes to life in this new Canadian animated film

Still courtesy Elevation Pictures

Born in 1917 to a well-off German-Jewish family, Charlotte Salomon aspired to be a professional artist—a feat that proved difficult for a Jewish woman coming of age at the start of the Second World War. With the rise in antisemitism in her hometown of Berlin, she sought refuge in the South of France and began to paint her life story. Before her untimely death in Auschwitz, at age 26, Salomon created over 1,000 paintings depicting the lives of her parents, grandparents, friends and lovers.

She called the compilation of these paintings Life? Or Theatre? and her memory now lives on in this autobiographical art collection, which is now considered by many as the first graphic novel.

Julia Rosenberg, a Toronto-based film producer and the daughter of a Jewish-Polish refugee, received a copy of Life? Or Theatre? as a bat mitzvah gift many years ago. She remembers wafting through the heavy book and feeling an immediate connection to Salomon, as if she’d met a long-lost relative. 

“There was something about the vitality of Charlotte’s creative spirit that really inspired me,” she says.

Around eight years ago, Rosenberg decided to reach out to the Charlotte Salomon Foundation to acquire the film rights and begin assembling a team. The project caught the interest of several international producers (including Montreal-based writer-director Xavier Dolan) who came on board to help produce the picture.

It’s been a slow process spanning almost a decade. Rosenberg first consulted with the Charlotte Salomon Foundation, who had script approval on the project, to ensure that her life was well represented. Writers Erik Rutherford and David Bezmozgis worked alongside Rosenberg to develop the script, which was then brought to life by animation directors Eric Warin and Tahir Rana, the latter of whom is a graduate of Sheridan College’s animation program.

What resulted is a masterfully animated biopic, Charlotte, which opened at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 13. 

At the start of the film, we meet an eight-year-old Salomon, on the cusp of losing her mother. Cut to 1933, when Salomon (voiced by Keira Knightley) is 16. Despite her father and new stepmother’s insistence on her working as a seamstress, Salomon is set on pursuing a career in the arts. She manages to land a spot at a well-known art school in Berlin, but it’s not long before she is expelled for being a Jew. Her father is taken away to a concentration camp and Salomon is sent to live with her maternal grandparents in the South of France, where she falls in love, complicating her situation and eventually leading her to paint her life’s story.

“​​I will put everything I have into it,” Salomon says in the film, “everything beautiful and everything hideous.”

Actual re-creations of art pieces from Life? Or Theatre? are included in Charlotte, as we watch the animated Salomon paint or draw illustrations, giving the biopic a meta twist.

“It was really, really cool to be able to animate Charlotte painting her own paintings,” says Rana. “The power of showing her actually working in an animated way, that wouldn’t come across the same way in live action.”

Bezmozgis, a Canadian descendant of survivors, hopes the film will keep stories like these alive for future generations.

“When it comes to the Holocaust, not just because there’s a forgetting over time, there’s active denial, [so] you want to get your facts right,” he said. “For me, it’s something that, for good or ill, is with me probably every day of my life, and so I take it very seriously.”

Rosenberg hopes that audiences will connect to Salomon in a way that will allow them to reflect on the tragedy of all of those who perished in the Holocaust.

“My impulse to bring her story to the world is in large measure because she’s an overlooked female artist,” she says. “But she died because she was a Jew.”

Charlotte plays at TIFF until September 17. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here.