Art Conquers All

In ‘Charlotte,’ our heroine chooses to continue to create despite the worst possible historical circumstances

On April 22nd, the animated film ‘Charlotte’ opened in Los Angeles and New York, and will gradually come to new locations across the country in the following weeks. The seeming biopic is based on the life story of Charlotte Salomon, voiced by Kiera Knightley, a German-Jewish artist in the thirties best known for her seminal life’s work Life? Or Theater?: A Song-play that technically consists of 769 individual paintings. But structurally, Life? Or Theater?: A Song-play reads more like a highly abstract graphic novel memoir. It’s a bit surprising, really, that Life? Or Theater?: A Song-play isn’t better known, given the comparative centrality of Anne Frank’s story to our collective historical understanding of the Holocaust.

 ‘Charlotte’ doesn’t get into the documentarian reasons why that is. Nor does the movie read like much of a biopic. The production actually has a far more intriguing aesthetic approach than that. Charlotte is just a normal girl, turned young woman, who struggles with depression and insecurity. More specifically, she’s a German girl who has to tolerate increasingly aggressive displays by Nazis indicating that, both as a Jew and as an artist, she isn’t and can never truly be a German. She can never belong in that society, and probably doesn’t have a right to exist in general.

Charlotte Salomon, depicted in ‘Charlotte.’

‘Charlotte’ is a fascinating character study of this mindset, mostly divorced from politics, of just what life was like for people on a regular daily basis back then. It recognizes that on a day-by-day basis, surviving under an oppressive regime means finding comfort where you can and developing a personal identity that doesn’t rely on the approval of people who will never accept you.

This is also a larger mental health issue that people have even under governments that aren’t oppressive regimes, and serves as a noteworthy pivot throughout ‘Charlotte’ as we learn more about the title character’s family backstory. Charlotte learns, to her great alarm, that she has a long family history of what we would now call bipolar disorder. This is additional stress on an already precarious personal situation, as Charlotte finds herself threatened emotionally by Jews and Nazis alike in radically different ways that threaten to crush her psyche from both sides.

At this point, ‘Charlotte’ feels like it’s going to trace a very predictable arc. Say, that Charlotte may be damaged mentally but that’s what makes her such a great artist, because true adversity and pain is the only means by which art can really be produced. Or that the unique confluence and circumstances of Charlotte’s awful personal situation is what will allow her to transcend time and become a famed artist.

‘Charlotte’ neatly evades these toxic cliches with a much more proactive and healthy message. Our heroine refuses to succumb to despair. She takes a look at her art, and decides that whatever her insecurities, and whatever the motives of the people who claim that her work is good, she wants to make it because she wants to express herself. The thoughts Charlotte has are grim and even horrifying, literally staring into the face of death as if there is some succor that only death can provide. Charlotte’s art style is a natural fit for World War I imagery, among other things, and, unsurprisingly, the Nazis look with disdain at this willingness to face the macabre.

But Charlotte realizes that, correctly, refusing to face these problems directly will only make her limited time on Earth that much more miserable. She refuses to wallow in misery- a personal decision that brings her in increasing conflict with her grandfather, another brilliantly realized character who has chosen to wallow. And honestly, we can’t blame him. Neither can Charlotte. Yet the sad fact of the matter is, brutality can’t and shouldn’t overwhelm the importance of personal relationships.

‘Charlotte’ states its thesis clearly enough early on. You can’t expect life to love you. Rather, you have to choose to love life. Some may find this idea trite or offensive- especially those who go into Charlotte expecting a pseudo-historical document. Instead, it provides uplift in its depiction of a woman who finds a reason to live even in awful circumstances.

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William Schwartz

William Schwartz is a reporter and film critic based in Seoul, South Korea. He writes primarily for HanCinema, the world's largest and most popular English language database for South Korean television dramas and films.

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