Saturday, April 25, 2015

Painterly Recollections of Hell

There is something unnervingly eerie about dead silence in a motion picture. Not quiet, but total silence. 

French documentarian Christophe Cognet uses this quality brilliantly in his new film Because I Was a Painter, a meditation on the work of artists who were prisoners in the Nazi concentration camps.Taking a useful leaf from the Claude Lanzmann playbook, Cognet shows us contemporary footage of the artists being interviewed, of the museums and their curators in which the works are preserved and the camps including Auschwitz, Birkenau, Treblinka and Buchenwald.

 Gray skies over Buchenwald

Cognet is trying valiantly to reach some sort of conclusion about the dangers of aestheticizing mass murder, returning repeatedly to the image of an empty gray sky, but the poignancy of the drawings on display here makes for a fascinatingly dissonant experience.  It's the sort of film in which Zoran Music can write of his time in the camps that he felt compelled to depict "all the inner pain" in the faces of the dead, adding "I drew all that because I was a painter," yet Walter Spitzer can tell the filmmakers "I wasn't a painter, I was only 17."

A thoughtful, intelligent and discomfiting film and, because of its severely restricted subject matter, a somewhat fresh perspective on the Shoah. (Currently playing at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema.

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