In the animated biopic “Charlotte,” about the German Jewish painter Charlotte Salomon, the film’s most eloquent moment may be its last. Concluding on an image of the French Riviera as the sounds of a Nazi roundup can be heard, the directors Éric Warin and Tahir Rana come closest to capturing Salomon’s brief life with its tensions between the creative and the nihilistic.
The actress Keira Knightley voices Salomon, who became known posthumously for “Life? or Theatre?,” the vast series of autobiographical gouaches she painted while living in the South of France. In 1938, her parents sent her from Berlin to the American philanthropist Ottilie Moore’s estate in Villefranche-sur-Mer, where her maternal grandparents had relocated.
“Life? or Theatre?” — now considered an early graphic novel — is made up of 769 paintings, which are thick, unsettling and expressionistic.
Like her opus, the film covers Salomon’s youth in Berlin with her father, a physician, and stepmother, an opera singer; her romance with her stepmother’s voice coach, Alfred Wolfsohn (a very fine Mark Strong); her time at Berlin’s Academy of Arts; her relationship with her grandparents; and, yes, the rise of the Third Reich.
But the demons closing in on her in France don’t only wear brown shirts. Jim Broadbent gives voice to her grandfather with a sternness that hints as his tyranny. It is her grandfather’s vindictive revelation of the family’s history of mental illness and suicides that spurs Salomon to create her masterwork.
“Charlotte” takes faithful inspiration from the artist’s life, and understatedly renders the facts of her tragic death before the credits. On the day Salomon arrived at Auschwitz, she was killed. She was 26 years old, and pregnant.
In the end, “Charlotte” is bereft of the spirit of the artist who made the uncanny “Life? or Theatre?” What an even better tribute the movie would have been had it also taken heated energy from Salomon’s art.
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 32 minutes. In theaters.