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The Tragic Beauty of Artworks Made in Hell

INTERVIEW: Because I Was a Painter, a documentary film by Christophe Cognet showing the paintings, drawings and sculptures secretly created in Nazi concentration camps opens at Lincoln Plaza in New York City on April 24.

Because I Was a Painter/ Parce j’étais un peintre, the German-French documentary film by Christophe Cognet shows the paintings, drawings and sculptures secretly created in Nazi concentration camps between 1933 and 1945. Nearly 30,000 of them have survived and are held in collections in France, Germany, Israel, Poland, Czech Republic, Belgium and Switzerland.

Through interviews with surviving artists, international curators and art critics, the act of drawing or painting emerges both as an individual act of defiance and protest and as an escape from a terribly traumatic experience.

EXBERLINER wanted to know more.

How did you come up with the idea for this documentary?

No one in my family was deported. I am not Jewish. But these events concern me. They are universal. Leaving these topics to those who bear them in their own flesh, blood or family history would indeed mean limiting their scope and denying their essential, universal nature.

It is my encounter with painter Boris Taslitzky, a Jewish communist and Buchenwald survivor (his mother was murdered at Auschwitz) that set me on this path, 15 years ago.

He inspired your movie L’atelier de Boris/Boris’s studio.

Yes. I met him late in his life and the film I made in 2003 is a portrait of him. Boris told me there were 10 artists in the camp who, like him, made clandestine artworks. It turns out they were about 40 of them. Two years later I made When our Eyes Are Closed/Quand nos yeux sont fermés about the clandestine art made in Buchenwald.

A huge amount of research went into the making of Because I Was a Painter. What exactly did this research involve?

The film and the research owe everything to the relationships I developed with artists who survived the camps, to their families, and to the curators and historians in France, Germany, Israel, Poland, Czech republic, Belgium, Switzerland, USA, and UK who deal with these subjects in their work. It took time to realize the numerical and symbolic importance of these clandestine artworks.

It took you 10 years to make the documentary. Why?

The lack of documentation. It is only recently that memorials, institutions and museums have started to understand the importance of these works, that exhibition spaces and departments of conservation have been devoted to them, and that the Art Museum was created (in 2005) at Yad Vashem.

What changed?

Once those personally involved began to disappear, the question of transmission became urgent.

What were the most challenging moments?

All the moments were deeply hard and powerful at the same time. The film deals with the worst (the Shoah) and the best (the resistance, the beauty, the power of life and the arts) of humanity.

Any good moments?

During the filming, Samuel Willenberg, at the time one of the two Treblinka Survivors still alive (today he is the only one) caught by chance on one of our monitors the scene that starts with him at work and ends with a view of the camp in the present. Suddenly he ran to me, took me in his arms shouting “it’s wonderful, it’s wonderful.” It was a very intense moment for me.

Why did you choose to show images of today’s concentration camps?

In this case, the art and the space are interlinked. The artworks come from these places, and the immensity of the camps underlines their fragility. The spatial dimension facilitates the understanding of what the artworks represent. It also helps us imagine what being an individual inside such a space really meant, beyond the suffering, the hunger, or the cold.

Is it what the documentary is about?

I tried to highlight (during both the filming and the editing) the relationship between the experience, the knowledge, the sites, the artworks, and the moving body – my own, but also the body of the people we see in the film. There is a corporal experience to it, and I hope the film manages to provoke physical sensations.

How different is the final product from the original idea?

I allow myself to think and feel with the camera, so I didn’t have any preconceived idea when I started. I let it all unfold and the film wrapped itself, step by step, around the axis of this unimaginable thing, this sharing of an impossible experience through both the text and the image. I began by asking if beauty exists in such a context and I got completely different answers. Samuel believes that the artworks can be nothing but inherently devoid of beauty while José believes beauty comes in all shapes and colors and grapples with finding beauty in paintings of corpses. The movie is making its way around this question, but without a fixed objective or the promise of an answer. I don’t feel I have the right to be affirmative. All I can say is that, at first, the film asks a question about beauty, but ends with one about accuracy.

Because I Was a Painter/ Parce j’étais un peintre I Lincoln Plaza Cinema. Opens, April 24-May 1