CAPSULE: During the Holocaust prisoners who were artists secretly made and hid drawings that recorded the experience of being held in the camps and murdered. Christophe Cognet writes and directs (the first time for either) this documentary talking to the artists and showing the art that was created under these horrendous circumstances. The purpose of the documentary is important, but the film fails in execution due to technical problems that were not sufficiently considered in the making. Rating: high 0 (-4 to +4) or 5/10
During the Holocaust, when millions of people were being murdered, a few artists wanted to bear witness and preserve the experience for those who came after. It was impossible for those in the camps to get a camera and photograph the unthinkable going on all around. But it was just barely possible for some artists to scrounge paper and writing implements and draw what people who were not there could not imagine.
Writer and director Christophe Cognet interviews several of the artists who recorded their lives at a time when art was a capital crime. Artists participating include Yehuda Bacon, José Fosty, Walter Spitzer, Samuel Willenberg, and Krystyna Zaorska. The artists occasionally disagree on what their experience was. One finds that there can be no beauty in all of this bloodshed, but another says that in the way that the bodies so thoroughly show the suffering of the dying person that that is a beauty in the same way that Picasso's "Guernica" is beautiful. We do see a variety of different styles and subjects in the samples of their artwork. Different expressions of life in the camps and the artists tell us why they chose the different approaches.
We never get a good idea how these artists managed to maintain large portfolios of their art work and not have them fall into the hands of their captors. We would like little more understanding of the mechanics of successfully documenting life in the camps and preserving that art so that others would see it.
The film suffers (badly) from technical problems; most of which are reparable, but at this point have not been fixed. This is definitely a film that needs to be narrated and dubbed rather than subtitled. Why? Much of the film is looking at drawings in black on a white background. The current subtitles are white letters with black edge trimming. The lack of contrast makes the subtitles a real struggle to read. On top of which the subtitles are printed for just a moment and then quickly whisked away. Even given full concentration, reading the subtitles is fully consuming. But the subtitles are not where the viewer should be looking when there is art on the screen. One can read the subtitles or see the art, but not both.
The drawings frequently have great detail and need to be studied to realize what is being portrayed. But there just would not be time for the viewer to appreciate what is being expressed in the art even if the subtitles were ignored. We see some art at a distance and then moved up to the camera lens, but it would be better to see the art visible from the very first we see it. Of understanding the drawings and reading the subtitles, there is not enough time to do either well, much less do both. Narrating the film in the intended viewer's language, pointing out important details of the drawing, would go a long way toward making the artwork more comprehensible and appreciated.
This could have been an important documentary and it very nearly is already, but much of the viewing experience needs to be rethought and alterations need to be made. As it stands the film has serious flaws. Because of the subject of the documentary we need to have more time looking at the art and less panning the camera over the countryside. As it stands I rate BECAUSE I WAS A PAINTER a high 0 on the -4 to +4 scale or 5/10.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3342998/combined
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/because_i_was_a_painter/
As a side note: I have a particular interest in the artist Yahuda Bacon who credits my uncle, Stanley Leeper, with saving his life after Bacon was liberated from Auschwitz. Details are available at http://tinyurl.com/mrl-bacon.
Mark R. Leeper Copyright 2015 Mark R. Leeper