To most collectors, a still life by Tolpin, a virtually unknown Russian painter is a far cry from Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer (the painting in Woman in Gold), but to Lilka Elbaum (born Rozenbaum), it holds similar significance. Her family reluctantly left it behind when they were forced to immigrate by the Communist regime’s anti-Semitic purges, but its history in Lodz’s traditional Jewish neighborhood extended back before them, to the 1920s. Documentarian Slawomir Grunberg uses the painting as a device to examine the history of Lodz’s Jewish community in Still Life in Lodz, which opens virtually this Friday.
Pola Erlich and her sons were the original tenants of Elbaum’s family flat and they first hung Tolpin’s still life, where it would remain for decades. The collaborating resident who took possession during the German occupation kept it up and so did the Rozenbaums when they moved in after the war. Although Elbaum was born post-War and eventually immigrated to America, she kept in touch with the daughter of the family that sheltered her mother, so from time to time, she returned to Poland.
As a result, Elbaum felt a diasporic kinship with American-born Paul Celler, whose mother, Rosa Posalska, survived the Lodz Ghetto and Auschwitz, as well as Roni Ben Ari, an Israeli artist, whose grandfather, Moshe Halpern, immigrated to Israel before the War. Elbaum and Grunberg accompany them as they explore their own family connections to the historic neighborhood specifically and to Poland in general.
Still Life might sound like a conventional documentary about the tragic Jewish Holocaust-era experience, but Grunberg finds ways to make it feel fresh, including incorporating brief but distinctive animated interludes. He also shoots some surprisingly cinematic aerial shots that give viewers a good sense of the geography and scale of the neighborhood.
The mysterious Tolpin might not have been an unheralded master, but his still life is visually interesting (more so than many such paintings), so it works well as a jumping off point for the film. Many viewers might only know Lodz for the infamous ghetto, so it is good to see a fuller, richer portrait of the city, which continued to be a hub of Poland’s Jewish community until the 1960s. Very highly recommended, Still Life in Lodz releases virtually this Friday (3/12).