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Because I Was a Painter

Distributed by Cinema Guild, 115 West 30th Street, Suite 800, New York, NY 10001; 212-685-6242
Produced by Stephane Jourdain, Jonas Katzenstein, Maximilian Leo
Directed by Christophe Cognet
DVD, color, 104 min.
General Adult
Art History, Jewish Holocaust 1939-1945, Grief

Reviewed by Neil M. Frau-Cortes, University of Maryland

Date Entered: 9/24/2015

This is a documentary film about the power of art and about human resiliency during the Holocaust. It is articulated around a series of interviews with survivors of Nazi camps. Confronted with the unthinkable horror, the narrative accounts of this group of Jewish artists reach beyond giving mere witnesses to the suffering and destruction, and take on the mission of changing the world with their art. As one of the painters says: “I drew all of that because I was a painter, it was out of necessity […] something I couldn’t avoid doing.” Painting was a subversive, dangerous act, and the artists risked their life to do so.

The film is a meditation on human suffering and how art has the power to redeem the human condition even when faced with of total desolation. Art becomes the only shining light that can help humans find beauty in the midst of unspeakable suffering. One of the central questions of the documentary is whether it is possible to find esthetics in death. Some of the painters reach the conclusion that it is simply an impossible task: the beauty of a corpse –if any— is only to be found in the soul of the painter and in his compassion for the human drama.

The art produced by these painters is often very realistic, depicting scenes of daily life in the extermination camps. Other paintings, like the ones depicting Mengele’s experiments and autopsies, ordered by the Nazi murderer himself as part of his pseudo-scientific research, have a documentary value. In some cases, these drawings were used as evidence in the trials against the Nazis.

Some of the artworks are less realistic, but rather highly symbolic, depicting claustrophobic spaces, presenting the same character in different stages of their journey: a naked woman oblivious to her near fate; the same woman panicking on her way to the gas chambers; the moment when she gives up the fight and accepts death. Painters, after all, are not press reporters: they fill the gaps, recreate reality, and imbue the scenes with their own feelings.

The film is in itself a portrait of contrasts, as the images of death and destruction from the artwork alternate with the now green, quiet and peaceful landscapes of the former camps and cemeteries. There is strange beauty in the damaged tombstones, in the vast meadows surrounding the camps, and in the gentle rain falling on the hard concrete. The scarce use of sound is deeply moving: along the film there is no music, just the voices of the survivors, the sounds of breeze, rain, and birds. It is the soundtrack of serenity in the tragedy, of quiet after the storm.

Suited for adult audiences, this documentary is in English, French, Hebrew, Polish, and German with English subtitles. It can be used in college level classes dealing with art history, Jewish studies, and contemporary history.