Charlotte Salomon (Keira Knightley) is as singular a talent as the world of fine art has ever seen, unique in her talents, in her dedication, and in her unbelievable life story. A German-born Jew who was just 16 when the Nazis came to power, the teenaged Charlotte somehow still manages to find success in a German art school, and has a brief, passionate affair with Alfred (Mark Strong), a voice coach she meets through her stepmother Paula (Helen McCrory, in her final role) who is the first person to really believe in Charlotte’s art and inspires a breakthrough in the quality of her work; unfortunately, he also happens to be engaged to someone else. After the Nazis came for Charlotte’s father (Eddie Marsan), Paula helps her flee to Nice, France, where Charlotte alternates between staying with her overbearing grandparents (Jim Broadbent, Brenda Blethyn) and a kinder home with American patron named Ottilie Moore (Sophie Okonedo). There, she uncovers a family history of depression and suicide that rocks her to her core. Convinced she has limited time left on this earth, she throws herself into a project that would consume her life: Leben? oder Theater? (Life? or Theater?), a collection of over well over 700 paintings created during an incredible two-year binge that tell the story of her life, her loves, her family secrets, and life under Nazi occupation. “It’s every memory from my life,” Charlotte says in the film, “including ones I didn’t remember until I painted them. And some that never happened. But they’re no less true.” These exquisite gouache paintings in the expressionist style (hundreds of which also include transparent overlays that transform the works into something new entirely) form what is effectively the first ever graphic memoir.
Co-directors Éric Wahrin (Leap!) and Tahir Rana (Welcome to the Wayne) take incredible care to capture both Charlotte’s artistry and her life story, which is true (without embellishment) and has even more incredible twists and turns and tragedies than what I shared in my synopsis above. The lush 2-D digital animation frequently recreates Salomon’s paintings as a process, the pictures appearing as brushstrokes using our television screen as a canvas. Taking a cue from European comics, the film’s backgrounds are also lush, painterly, and hyper-realistic, while the characters have a simplified, cartoony appearance that works as iconography.
Interestingly, the dialogue in Charlotte can often be quite sparse, leaving long passages where the animation and Michelino Bisceglia’s mournful, piano-and-cello-driven score do the emotional heavy lifting. The voice cast are no slouches, though—the cast is largely British (an interesting choice considering none of the characters are) and in that spare dialogue they are able to imbue the characters with a typically English, emotionally repressed reserve that serves as a nice contrast to Charlotte, who is anything but. Knightley plays Charlotte as intensely emotional, someone who revels in joy but is also devastated by the many tragedies she faces, though with an underlying hope that always shines in the dark moments. Charlotte is a rare character, and Knightley embodies her well.
Animation was absolutely the right choice in medium for this film, and the directors use it to full effect. However, don’t be confused by that choice: this film is decidedly not kid-friendly fare, and while its sex and violence are tamed down and mostly implied offscreen, Charlotte’s story is a serious and deeply sad one. There is nothing here that would be inappropriate for a high school student, provided they’re emotionally mature enough to deal with a touching, compelling, one-of-a-kind Holocaust film that pulls no punches.
Extras on the Blu-Ray release include trailers, a featurette on the animation process, and brief interviews with producer Julia Rosenberg (on why the medium of animation was chosen for Charlotte’s story), Keira Knightley (on her thoughts on Charlotte Salomon), and various actors (on the hope and inspiration they gleaned from the story). There are also almost five minutes of deleted scenes (some animated, some animatics). As with most deleted scenes, one could quibble with whether their presence would have added to or detracted from the film, and while I wouldn’t complain about the film’s pacing or it’s just-right 97-minute runtime, I do feel that the cut scene wrapping up the relationship between Charlotte and Alfred would’ve nicely added some punctuation to the end of that particular plotline. Not included, sadly, is the French dub of the film starring Marion Cotillard as Charlotte, which would have been a lovely addition. | Jason Green