While hiding from the Nazis, the German Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon began a series of autobiographical paintings and texts with a painfully simple description of her aunt, and namesake’s, suicide: “Scene 1: 1913. One November day, a young girl named Charlotte Knarre leaves her parents’ home and jumps into the water.”
Intense and memorable, that image is the launching point for “Life? or Theatre?”, a series of hundreds of gouaches Salomon made between 1940 and 1942. Best described as an “autobiographical play,” it features personal stories illustrated with vibrant paintings and cues for music. Salomon, in her 20s when she made the body of work, called it a “singspiel,” a play with music.
And now, a new film directed by French sisters Delphine and Muriel Coulin, delivers a cinematic representation of her best-known work. “Charlotte Salomon: Life and the Maiden” will make its world premiere at Lincoln Center on Weds., January 18 as a centerpiece of the New York Jewish Film Festival.
The film lies somewhere between cinema and art installation: Aside from a brief opening and conclusion, Salomon’s expressive paintings take up most of the screen time. Sound design brings the paintings to life, as does the music Salomon indicated in her original script, along with text read by the actress Vicky Krieps (“Phantom Thread,” “Corsage”), who plays protagonist Charlotte.
“We didn’t want to make a pure documentary of her,” co-director Delphine Coulin told the New York Jewish Week. “What had never been done was to make a true film with the painting, the music and the text, and to imagine what Charlotte was visualizing when she was painting… Because the neighbors said they could hear her singing while she was painting.”
These days, Salomon — who died at Auschwitz at age 26 in 1943 — is something of a cult favorite among art lovers and Jewish historians. In a 2017 New Yorker article, writer Toni Bentley notes that “Life? or Theatre?” is “the largest single work of art created by a Jew during the Holocaust.” She is also sometimes compared to Anne Frank. Critics have noted this comparison does neither artist justice, distinguishing between the youthful directness of Frank’s writing as an adolescent in hiding with the more mature, sophisticated representations made by Salomon as a young artist.
Born in Berlin in 1917, Salomon grew up in a cultured German Jewish family. Her mother died when she was 8. She studied at the German capital’s prestigious Academy of Arts until the Nazis’ rise to power made it impossible for her to continue. In 1938, her father spent a brief period in an internment camp — after his release, he sent his daughter to stay with her grandparents in the south of France, where he hoped she’d be safe.
After Salomon’s arrival at Villefranche-sur-Mer in 1939, her grandmother attempted suicide and eventually died. Only then did Salomon learn that her mother had died by suicide as well, and that the women in her family had a history of depression (though it isn’t covered in the film, there is some evidence that her grandfather may have been abusive).
In “Life? or Theatre?” Salomon writes: “My life began when my grandmother ended hers, when I learned that my mother too had ended her life, and that deep down I felt the same predisposition to despair and death. I thought to myself: either I kill myself too, or I create something really crazy and extraordinary.”
For the next two years, Salomon did just that, creating some 1,300 paintings about her life in exile. She accompanied these paintings with text and musical cues that included Bach, Schubert, Mahler and the German anthem “Deutschlandlied,” creating an entire multimedia body of work.
As the Nazi grip tightened in France, Salomon, realizing the danger she faced, brought a box containing all her paintings to a friend, the town’s doctor. The film recounts what she tells him: “Take care of it. This is my whole life.” Just weeks later, Salomon, five months pregnant, was sent to Auschwitz, where she died on Oct. 10, 1943.
While Salomon’s work includes depictions of Nazis, antisemitism and persecution, the majority of “Life? or Theater?” — and therefore the film — is dedicated to the explosive inner life and autobiography of its creator. She explores suicide, psychological distress, music, philosophy and her own artistic impulses.
Yet “Life? or Theatre?” is unmistakably a product of its time, and as such the film includes historical images of Hitler’s rise. Though the French filmmakers don’t identify as Jewish themselves, Delphine said that she and her sister have some Jewish family, and she noted the film’s content is more relevant than ever. “Antisemitism never did end, but now in France and in Europe, it is stronger and stronger than ever, since 1945,” she said. “We really see it and we talk to it nearly each day. We can’t ignore it.”
“With all these strange times we’re living in, Charlotte gives you strength, because she really crossed the times with a strong belief in art and love,” she added.
The film ends with astonishing footage from the early 1960s of Salomon’s father and stepmother, who survived hiding in the Netherlands, looking through their daughter’s paintings as they are interviewed about her. “I was surprised when I discovered her work,” says her father Albert Salomon. He had known nothing of his late daughter’s project until the couple visited Villefranche-sur-Mer after the war, hoping to find some traces of Charlotte’s life.
“The work is very, very vivid — very expressive of life in all its aspects,” said Delphine of Salomon’s art — and the Coulin sisters, in turn, were inspired to bring the work to a broader audience. In 2019, Muriel directed her first theater piece, “Charlotte,” a rendition of Salomon’s work for the stage that played in Paris at the Théâtre du Rond Point. When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the production, the Coulins transposed their medium to film.
Delphine added that they were also drawn to what she called the “poignant story” of Salomon’s brief life, now immortalized by her singular creative impulse in the face of adversity.
“In difficult times — and her times were probably the most difficult times ever — she really believed in art,” she said. “How art makes you survive. How it can give you a piece of eternity. We wouldn’t speak about her this way if she had not been able to make this wonderful work.”