Charlotte Salomon Holocaust-era life story animated by Toronto film producer, voiced by Keira Knightley

·3-min read

Film producer Julia Rosenberg was out for a run one morning when she decided she had to tell the story of Charlotte Salomon, a young German-Jewish artist who created what’s known as the first graphic novel (Life? or Theatre?), in the form of an animated movie, Charlotte (in theatres April 22).

“The idea came so cleanly to me that I didn't even interrogate it,” Rosenberg told Yahoo Canada. “Charlotte Salomon drew her life story and so I needed to produce an animated film that was drawn of her life story.”

“The film itself is drawn, it's art, it sort of amplifies Charlotte's approach to storytelling beautifully… In some ways, it's closer to the dreamscape in a lot of ways and it surprises us at how it can evoke emotional states and feelings when we least expect it.”

FRANKFURT/MAIN, GERMANY:  A visitor looks at a painting of Charlotte Salomon exposed at the
FRANKFURT/MAIN, GERMANY: A visitor looks at a painting of Charlotte Salomon exposed at the "Staedel" museum in Frankfurt/Main, 15 June 2004. From 17 June to 22 August 2004, the "Staedel" shows in the exhibition titled "Life? or Theatre?" in cooperation with the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam 280 of around 1300 gouaches the artist painted in an outburst of intense creativity between 1940 and 1942 in the south of France. C'est toute ma vie, (This is my whole life) thus Charlotte Salomon describes the collection. The artist died at the concentration camp in Auschwitz. AFP PHOTO DDP/THOMAS LOHNES GERMANY OUT (Photo credit should read THOMAS LOHNES/DDP/AFP via Getty Images)

Salomon, a talented artist, fled Nazi Germany, Brelin specifically, for safety in the South of France. She continued to paint but her life is interrupted by the discovery of her family’s deep history of mental illness and suicide. This prompts Salomon to visually depict her life story, which gave us Life? or Theatre?

Salomon was killed after being taken, along with her husband, by German Gestapo from the south of France to Auschwitz in Poland. She died the day she arrived in 1943, at the age of 26 and five months pregnant.

“The very first thing that we all want is for people to become more familiar with this work and her story, and to amplify her genius and increase the public's appreciation of her,” Rosenberg said.

“Charlotte's story is a story of hope and despite what challenges us externally and internally, we can make some choices and often through creativity, find hope.”

Charlotte in theatres April 22 (Elevation Pictures)
Charlotte in theatres April 22 (Elevation Pictures)

While the circumstances of this film required Rosenberg to work to interpret Salomon’s work and life story, based on the documentation available, the film’s producer stressed that Salomon herself “invites us to question” the representation of her life, even by calling her work Life? or Theatre?, with question marks.

“We looked at how Charlotte told her own story in Life? or Theatre?, we consulted with the Charlotte Salomon Foundation, we looked at different academic approaches and there are lots of interesting theories,” Rosenberg said. “One that was published a few years ago speculates that [her] grandfather was particularly hideous, even more hideous than he appears in our film.”

“At the time we thought, well it's interesting but it feels like an interpretation, and I think Charlotte would welcome interpretation… We tried as much as we could to stay with what was more known to be true.”

Charlotte, with the main character voice by Keira Knightley in English and Marion Cotillard in French, uses beautifully crafted animation as a way to tell this heartbreaking story, but as Rosenberg points out, still hopeful and inspiring. There’s a unique expression to the visuals that so effectively convey this sobering narrative, while maintaining artistic beauty.