BECAUSE I WAS A PAINTER (Parce que j’etais peintre)
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten for CompuServe ShowBiz. Databased on Rotten Tomatoes.
Director: Christophe Cognet
Screenwriter: Christophe Cognet
Cast: Samuel Willenberg, Yehuda Bacon, Walter Spitzer, Jose Fosty, Krystyna Zaorska, Dinah Gottliebova
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 3/10/15
Opens: April 24, 2015
We usually think of paintings as beautiful creations to hang in our homes and museums, and strangely enough, drawings from the Holocaust are no exception. As one artist opinrd in the doc “Because I Was a Painter,” if a painting on whatever subject is not beautiful, a potential audience will give it no more than a few seconds. (This sounds akin to critic John Simon’s view that actresses must be beautiful or they will not command the attention of an audience.)
Christophe Cognet’s documentary is about yet another niche in Holocaust films, though the subject is not quite original. A better, more expansive and expensive film about the subject of art albeit not in the camps is Richard Berg, Bonni Cohen and Nicole Newnham’s 2006 picture “The Rape of Europa,” about the stealing of thousands of works of art by Nazis and attempts by allies to limit the damage.
“Because I Was a Painter,” a German-French co-production, is written and directed by Christophe Cognet, who is in his métier, having presided over mostly short documentaries including “L’Atelier de Boris,” about a Buchenwald-imprisoned artist, which he published as a hardcover book as well, now available at Amazon.
Surviving artists get their fifteen minutes, folks who now live in Israel, Poland, France and Belgium, while those who did not survive have their stories taken over by curators of museums. Some of the drawings, which appear to be in charcoal and with the use of simple brown package papers, had been hidden from the guards and the kapos (the latter being Jewish prisoners given special treatment by the Nazis but who often beat other prisoners), and had been smuggled out for the world to see.
Some of the more gruesome art works are mostly quite realistic looking as though taken with a small camera, and deal with naked bodies being carted away on wheelbarrows with the arms dangling; women being gassed while an SS guard observes through a glass (Jews were not allowed to see inside the gas chambers but drew them as they imagined); and most strikingly a stack of 114 drawings of Roma people commissioned by the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele just hours before they were executed.
Now and then, Nara Keo Kosal’s camera shifts from the art to the landscapes of the camps, including the well-known tracks leading to Birkenau showing tourists somberly walking about and the sign over Auschwitz “Arbeit Macht Frie”—both of which I observed on a day-trip from Krakow, Poland.
Those drawings now in museums and in Israel’s Ghetto Fighters’ House (Lohamei HaGetaot wherein I spent a few weeks on a Holocaust study grant) are handled literally with kid gloves, turned over carefully with the use of a file card lest they fall apart if turned like pages of a modern book.
This is slow-moving, undramatic documentary, the narration and responses coming across in a desultory manner, with “takes” that are often too long as though for artistic effect. The film deserves attention as the product of a niche not exactly covered to any degree by the wealth of movies on the Holocaust but it is anything but riveting.
Unrated. 104 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – C
Acting – C+
Technical – B
Overall – B-