If Anne Frank had been 26 instead of 13, had been obsessed with an absent lover and had illustrated her diary with hundreds of painted drawings, the result might have been Charlotte Salomon’s extraordinary “Life? or Theater?” completed in 1943 — just six months before her deportation and death in Auschwitz. Dutch director Frans Weisz’s fascinating docu juxtaposes wildly disparate texts and textures, including Salomon’s haunting artwork and excerpts from Weisz’s own 1980 biopic, “Charlotte.” The dramatic intersections of her interior journey with the larger catastrophe of the Holocaust should propel the pic well beyond its target audience.
Salomon’s 769 paintings are arranged here as a vivid slideshow, sometimes isolating annotated moments within her narrative, sometimes sketching multiple variations on her lover’s face, or sometimes illustrating successive stages of an action within a single frame. Helmer Weisz often briefly poses the talking heads of his interview subjects — art critics, curators, biographers — in front of this moving storyboard, their voices remaining after their images fade.
Family photos, archival Third Reich footage, short snippets of interviews with Salomon’s relatives and scenes from Weisz’s previous “Charlotte” are interwoven with the drawings to trace her Berlin childhood and adolescence, which transpired just as anti-Semitic laws closed in. Her surgeon father was arrested and tortured, and her stepmother, a famous singer, was banned from performing. Salomon’s paintings limn a close relationship with her stepmother and a passionate love affair with her stepmother’s protege, Alfred Wolfsohn, whose philosophy deeply affected her, and who later served as the absent muse who inspired “Life? or Theater?”
After Salomon was forced to leave art school, her family sent her to presumptive refuge with her grandparents in the South of France, where she had to deal with their arrogance, denial and paranoia. Shame over how they treated their American hostess, who harbored several Jews in her villa, drove Salomon from these relatively safe confines. In a scene graphically illustrated in Salomon’s artwork, she becomes dramatically aware of the suicidal impulse that has run rampant on the maternal side of her family and threatens to overtake her.
At this stage in the story, a hitherto-unseen element enters Weisz’s mix — a long, hand-painted letter, which was written by Salomon six months after “Life? or Theater?” was completed, but was never made public, feverishly explaining the genesis of the artwork. In the letter, Salomon posits that her decision to create her “theater piece with music” was an alternative to self-destruction, as well as the fulfillment of the promise that her beloved Wolfsohn recognized in her. Weisz invites the star of “Charlotte,” Birgit Doll, to the South of France, filming her retracing Salomon’s itinerary.
The docu’s intertextual shenanigans come off smoothly due to Weisz’s direction, Erik Disselhoff’s editing and the genuinely cinematic quality of Salomon’s original storyboard-like artwork.