Thursday, April 23, 2015

In BECAUSE I WAS A PAINTER, Christophe Gognet tackles the Holocaust via its inmates' art

If you imagine that you've now seen The Holocaust from just about every possible angle, think again. Here's a new one -- from Christophe Gognet, the writer and director of BECAUSE I WAS A PAINTER: ART THAT SURVIVED THE NAZI CAMPS -- that gives us the horror all over again via the art created by concentration camp victims, some of these survivors who are, or were until very recently, still with us. (The film was made a few years ago and was first viewed art the Rome Film Festival in 2013.)

M. Cognet, shown at right, begins his film on the site, I believe, of one of the concentration camps on which has been placed row after row of jagged stones. These appear to be gravestones, and this is clearly some kind of memorial. Then we hear an artist tell us that the beauty here comes from the pain-ter, not from the corpse. Next we view a painting of many corpses, as the artist explains, "We've all seen a dead person. Even children have seen this. But heaps of dead people? This fascinates you."

Not everyone would agree. Certainly the next artist featured -- Samuel Willenberg, who survived Treblinka -- does not. "What beauty?!" he practically shouts. "There is none. Devoid." The filmmaker allows us to have plenty of time to judge for ourselves, as we see the work of both survivors and of many of the artists who died but managed to leave behind a surprising amount of their work. And as no photos were ever taken of certain camps, such as Sobibor, the single drawing extant of women being gassed there gives us the only semi-eye-witness account that we have -- even if it could not have been viewed by the artist from the inside-the-gas-chamber POV that is shown in the drawing. (More likely this came from accounts given by a guard or a kapo.)

Later in the film, an artist talks about one of his works, a staggering painting of a single young and pregnant woman shown in various stages: just prior to learning she will be gassed and then coming to terms  -- visceral and horrifying -- with what this means to her and her unborn child. I doubt you will be able to erase this piece of "art," once seen, from your mind. This and much else that we see is fascinating, yes, but creepily so. Like so much real art, it takes hold of you in ways that even -- especially, perhaps -- Hollywood movies such as Schindler's List can't manage. (For perhaps the best "art" film about the Holocaust, try the Hungarian masterpiece Fateless, from Lajos Koltai.)

Cognet's film gives us artists who were inmates of the concentration camps talking about their experience -- and the "art" of it. In between, the slow-moving camera sweeps over all -- from landscapes and camps (today and in their former days) to paintings and drawings of the faces (both drawn and photographed) of inmates and the artists. Along the way, these artists talk about the old days. "On Sundays, when we didn't work," (who knew that concentration camp victims got Sunday off?), "we'd talk about art," one of them explains. "The smell of linseed oil -- it was just the same as at home!"

We learn of the late Dinah Gottliebova, who drew portraits for Doctor Mengele, and demanded, once these were unearthed post-war, that they be returned to her. Why were they not is explained quite interestingly and thoroughly. We learn too of Franciszek Jazwiecki, the artist who managed to paint Holocaust victims in four different camps -- and what portraits (shown below) these are!

Overall, this documentary, a kind of dirge with occasional shocking and/or joyous moments, provides a new way of looking at the horror we already know -- and just possibly rising even a step above it. I mentioned earlier the slow-moving camera, and you will have to accept this slow pace. If the experience is not quite like, in the words of the character portrayed by Gene Hackman in Night Moves, "watching paint dry," it is something like watching a painting come slowly into being. Clearly this snail pace was a directorial choice, and we must honor this, though I think M. Cognet could easily have excised a good ten or fifteen minutes of footage and not made his movie any the lesser for it. What remains is still quite something: an original, important and thought-and-feeling-provoking addition to Holocaust history.

Because I Was a Painter --from The Cinema Guild and running 105 minutes -- open this Friday in New York City at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema and then expands next month to Santa Fe and Columbus. Click here and then scroll down to see all currently scheduled playdates.

No comments: