Charlotte is a breathtaking animated film that achingly tells the tragic journey of a visionary artist. Charlotte Salomon’s “Life? or Theater?” consists of nearly a thousand paintings that depict her recollection of a harrowing upbringing. It is the largest work of art created by a Jew during the Holocaust. Born in Germany to a wealthy family, Charlotte Salomon’s artistic gift documented the Nazi rise to power and discovery of dark secrets in her lineage. The film sublimely uses her artwork as a transition between scenes. The narrative stumbles occasionally with a time-focused reliance. But captivates overall with a deep emotional connection to its subject.
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We first see Charlotte Salomon (Keira Knightley) in 1943 Côte d’Azur, France. She gives the kind Dr. Moridius (Henry Czerny) a suitcase of treasured paintings. The film flashes back to Berlin in 1933. A younger Charlotte remembers the death of her mother as a child. A brilliant painter and sketch artist, her doctor father, Albert (Eddie Marsan), and singer stepmother, Paula (Helen McCrory), try to get her a job as a tailor’s apprentice. Lotte, as she is affectionately called, is good with her hands. Paula warns her that a life in the arts is difficult. Charlotte ignores her parents. She’s accepted to the Academy of Fine Arts, a major achievement for a Jew in an increasingly racist Germany.
Several weeks later on a trip to Italy with her grandparents, Grossmama (Brenda Blethyn) and Grosspapa (Jim Broadbent), Charlotte meets Ottile Moore (Sophie Okonedo). The American heiress is impressed by Charlotte’s talent and spirit. Charlotte returns to a Berlin overtaken by Nazi ideology. Jews have become the German government’s primary target. On Kristallnacht, The Night of Broken Glass in 1938, a terrified Charlotte and Paula stand helplessly as Albert is taken. Her father’s ordeal forces drastic action. Albert decides to send Charlotte to France; where Ottile Moore shelters Jewish children and refugees. Charlotte leaves her terrifying home for a beautiful paradise. But life on the French Riviera is not an escape. Her family’s hidden tragedies and the evil Nazis follow.
Animation Punctuated by Stunning Paintings
Charlotte’s story is told with relatively straightforward animation punctuated by her stunning paintings. This visual contrast serves a key purpose. Charlotte’s coming-of-age is rife with sadness. But she has moments of joy. Finding love, friendships, and expression in her work. She’s surrounded by a hideous prejudice that festers into deadly violence. Charlotte’s teachers recognize her immense skills but degrade her as a Jew. The paintings serve as vivid snapshots of her encounters. Directors Tahir Rana and Éric Warin masterfully incorporate them at points of inflection. Charlotte matures in a place that hates her existence. These are powerful moments that carry the weight of the film.
Charlotte ebbs and flows with its bulleted structure. At this time, Charlotte was here, doing specific things with these exact people. Tahir Rana and Éric Warin should have been more flexible in the plot’s delivery. A biopic has to illustrate important events. Charlotte lays them out too directly. This Wikipedia-esque execution somewhat blunts the artistry in better parts of the film.
Charlotte includes shocking revelations recently uncovered after decades. I give the filmmakers credit for not glossing over them. Her struggles, how she faced them, good and bad, are integral to understanding a complex young woman in an awful time. The film’s final act is heart-wrenching.
Marion Cotillard voices Charlotte in the French version of the film. It is also the final performance of the brilliant British actress Helen McCrory. Charlotte is produced by January Films, Balthazar Productions, Walking The Dog, and Téléfilm Canada. It will have a limited theatrical release in the United States on April 22nd from Good Deed Entertainment.
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About The Author
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Julian Roman has been with Movieweb for nearly twenty years. An avid film buff, he feels lucky to have interviewed and written extensively about Hollywood’s greatest talents. In his spare time he plays guitar, treasures good company, and always seeks new adventures.
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