Charlotte is another anonymous effort on the Holocaust film heap that has now idea what to do with Jewish pain.
Éric Warin and Tahir Rana’s animated feature biography Charlotte recollects the tragically stunted life of Charlotte Salomon, a German-Jewish painter, executed upon her arrival to Auschwitz, while in wretched company with her unborn child. It’s a stilted attempt at plotting out the verisimilitude of the casual/not causal, year-to-year momentum of life as it is, with particular attention paid to her string of lovers and an emotionally abusive relationship with her grandfather, and climaxing with a never-further-analyzed murder — quite plainly an odd event to include, its utility within the narrative really only one of suspicious narrative convenience, rather than perceptive characterization. But it’s this very tilt into haphazard melodrama where we lose sight of the film’s innocuous intentions, distracted instead by the flatness of the animation style in tandem with a monotonous dramaturgy. The sum of the narrative is a bifurcated reduction of history that pits the capacity of artistic expression against the encroaching Nazi threat, and what this ultimately culminates in is a failure to manifest the very idiosyncrasy that enlivens Charlotte’s youthful, curious paintings, rendering the film’s perspective anonymous and resulting in an interpassive digestion of familiar catastrophe.
But beyond this, “Another Holocaust tragedy” is the disheartening thought Charlotte most immediately engenders. How has the industry-standard aesthetic so removed such necessary vitality and anger from the presentation of these images? Why have these artists, who practice in narrativizing this subject matter, enabled a vice’s grip of passivity onto the pathology evoked by the Shoah? So few accounts of this time anymore are responsibly conjuring a reflexive positionality, wherein the historicity of what’s depicted is knowingly alienated by its representations. Instead, a kind of normative image-making, exemplified by Charlotte, sees our (Jewish) suffering turned into an icon, and by means of that icon are we further estranged from the palpability of a generational trauma that has already been flowing its way down to us: its transformative abstract image malformed from that most important and intimate sense of memory into an endless commercial line of facile imitation (just see Norman Finkelstein’s piquant The Holocaust Industry for more about this phenomenon and the capitalist-propagandist machine behind it). To clarify, this is not about being against representations of true horrors, but one must understand, study, and scrutinize the very cultural sector where already a plethora of portrayals of said subject already exist. (This polemic is considering the Jewish Holocaust very specifically, due to the contemporary weaponization of Jewish pain in the political realm of foreign policy.) But it’s also worth noting that when depicting the sufferings of a people, a history is already existent in the ways a body can be seen as oppressed and violated, and this history is one to take solemn note of in all its discourses and forms in any ethical art.
Given all this, it’s right to consider what exactly the purpose of Charlotte is, if we are to see beyond the isolated true story it seeks to tell, and look inward to its melodrama as a tool used to foster the commonly found narratives that encircle Jewish pain during WWII. There is no philosophy here, no politic even — not an ounce of retrospect is offered, and so we are left with a 1:1 representation that parrots what is now a genre’s mainstream sentimentality. That this can even be discerned as a genre (“Holocaust films”) is fetishistic: a reveling in images of pain with not a single, sturdy reason for them to have recycled these signifiers again and again. Perhaps — in an effort to extend benefit of the doubt — these artists are truly ignorant as to the culture they birth their artifacts into, blissfully unaware of the macabre cacophony thriving each and every year at local Jewish film festivals across the globe. To these plausibly unaware artists, then, the question: why do you wish to partake in a practice — a collection of expression so densely oversaturated — that you, yourself, have done so little research in? (This is undoubtedly the softest line of questioning, where any accusation still does not begin to vilify the benightedness on display.) If such works are not here to offer redundant, and, at this point in time, frankly insulting John Doe-esque narrative trappings — with either no intention or capacity to offer stirring subjectivity in the articulation of these histories — then what, precisely, are we to do with these? What to do with Charlotte, other than add it to the magnificently sized mural of uncomplicated cinematic representations of the Holocaust? Such questions and frustrations are provoked by films so antiquated and derivative, expressions of an anger that seethes in a young Jewish populous seeking their way out of the contemporary stasis of our cultural hegemony, unable or seemingly unwilling to develop atop a past. It’s a stasis that uses our pain for the immediacy of what with more space to argue could be called a reactionary emotionality, never seeking futurity and the possibilities therein, and in fact seemingly avoiding it at any cost. Charlotte has no concept of what to do with Jewish pain.