Friday, April 24, 2015

Because I was a Painter: Art and Artists that Survived the Concentration Camps

Josef Richter’s life could inspire a truly great narrative film. In 1943, the Polish resistance fighter knowingly infiltrated Sobibor with the express intention of documenting the horrors within. Since smuggling in a camera would be impractical, Richter smuggled out hand-drawings of concentration camp life. (Conveniently for screenwriters, almost nothing else is known about the rest of his life, leaving ample room for artistic license.) Although his intent was more journalistic than artistic, Richter is justly included in Christphe Cognet’s study of the art and artists that survived the Holocaust in Because I was a Painter (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Painters paint and sketch artists sketch. That is what they do, regardless where they might be. Therefore, the artists consigned to the National Socialist camps logically used their art to process the madness. Some sought beauty amid the terror, while others considered such attempts impossible. Indeed, this is the great pseudo-debate of Because, but it is hardly one viewers can join. After all, every artist profiled in the film came to their opinions by enduring the worst humanity can inflict on fellow human beings.

Obviously, the work featured in the film is extremely powerful and extreme in nature. Unfortunately, Cognet’s detached, slow cinema approach does not always serve his subject matter particularly well. He deliberately keeps the audience at arm’s length, interspersing his interviews with long, drawn-out tracking shots of the former camp sites that now look deceptively peaceful and overgrown by nature.

Yes, time moves forward, but the past can still haunt the present (and the future). More narrative structure and more context would increase our understanding of the artists Cognet profiles. Some pieces, such as Dinah Gottliebova’s portraits of Mengele’s experiment subjects (previously documented in Hilary Helstein’s more aesthetically conventional As Seen Through These Eyes), need the barest of background to be fully appreciated. For the most part though, their work literally speaks for itself.

Indeed, the work of the artists surveyed is so powerful precisely because it incorporates art as it is ideally understood, as well as a form of journalistic documentation and a method of asserting one’s existence. There are many valuable sequences and riveting oral histories in the film, but Cognet’s stylistic severity is sometimes counter-productive. Even though it can be frustrating, it is still good that we have this film. Recommended for students of art and history, Because I was a Painter opens today (4/24) in New York, at the Lincoln Plaza.