Because I Was a Painter (Cognet, 2014)

Can powerful, even beautiful, art emerge from the most horrific of circumstances?  What propelled concentration camp prisoners to paint and draw, when faced daily with death, confinement, and cruelty?

These questions are contemplated in Christophe Cognet’s austere yet affecting documentary, Because I Was a Painter:  Art that Survived Nazi Camps.  Multiple answers are offered through interviews with surviving artists, museum curators, and historians.  Meanwhile, necessary context is provided by close examination of the art of 22 prisoners.

The consensus answer to the first question would be a qualified yes.  No matter the setting, beauty springs from mastery of technique and form.  It also arises from the unquenchable wonder of color and nature, including the human form.

Ever-present death on an incomprehensibly massive scale, of course, was anything but lovely.  Citing timeless works like Picasso’s Guernica, one painter/survivor points out, however, that tragedy has long been the soil from which beauty grows.  A former Buchenwald prisoner eloquently describes the camp as “a symphony of grays.”

When it comes to the motivations for their artistry, the responses are much more varied.  A few ex-captives speak of the unquenchable drive to create, an “atavistic” compulsion heedless of place and time.  This is evidenced by the risks the prisoners sometimes took, sketching while on forced marches or stealthily scavenging paper from SS offices.

Others found escape in drawing subjects unrelated to their imprisonment, comfort in conversing about civilized topics in the midst of depravity, or a Proustian return to soothing childhood memories on the wafting scent of turpentine and linseed oil.  On occasion, their talents were a ticket to survival, painting portraits of their captors’ children.

Unsurprisingly, many felt the urgency to bear witness and document the events and places surrounding them.  A particularly poignant example is a drawing of the Polish extermination camp Sobibor, of which no photographs or other images have survived.  Another grim instance comes from the gypsy portraits of Auschwitz, completed only 1-2 hours before their subjects were murdered for Josef Mengele’s ghoulish medical experiments.

It’s no wonder, either, that the styles of the works we see are quite variable (as in the recently reviewed Abandoned Goods, another documentary about art emerging from soul-deadening locales).  Some drawings are rough and childlike.  Other sketches are more accomplished and would not be out of place in an upper echelon graphic novel.

There’s a haunting abstraction evident in some illustrations, with a man’s gaunt, weary face appearing in the smoke above a crematorium in one drawing.  Still other portraits are arrestingly realistic, capturing the core emotion of their subjects, whether dignified determination, fatalism, or despair.

Cognet’s style is perfect for his weighty subject matter.  The director invariably uses slow camera movement, whether across artworks or views of the concentration camps as they appear today.  Almost completely eschewing narration or musical accompaniment, Cognet employs only straightforward cuts and the occasional fade to white, the simplest of editing techniques.

A contemporary view of a concentration camp, from "Because I Was a Painter"
A contemporary view of a concentration camp, from “Because I Was a Painter”

This simplicity only multiplies the power of Because I Was a Painter.  The unhurried movement permits us to see the awful cognitive dissonance inherent to a concentration camp’s daily life.  For instance, a skillful overhead sketch of Treblinka is merely admirable, then becomes entirely dreadful once you notice the crane in the background whose maw clasps multiple corpses.  A hellish cartoonlike drawing of naked females in a Sachsenhausen shower, scrambling atop one another to stay above the deadly gas, grows even ghastlier when the camera view includes the death’s head Nazi face leering through a window at the mayhem within.

Simultaneously and paradoxically, Cognet’s technique lends a certain detachment to his documentary, so that I’m only feeling the emotional pungency of his material retrospectively.  In the balance, though, I think Painter’s director chose wisely.  The topic of the Holocaust as depicted in movies now verges on banality, a lazy default topic when moviemakers want to release an “important” film (Life Is Beautiful, anyone?).

In considering the Holocaust from the novel vantage point of its artistic captives, Cognet has made an important contribution to our understanding and visualization of this cataclysm.  In its portrayal of the light and darkness of humanity in one of modernity’s most horrific episodes, Because I Was a Painter can honorably keep company with such Holocaust-generated classics of art and philosophy as Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning and Simon Wiesenthal’s The Sunflower.

4.5 out of 5 stars

(Parents’ guide:  Because I Was a Painter has not been rated by the MPAA.  Due to its intense subject matter and graphic visualization, I would encourage viewing by teens and adults only.)

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