“So atrociously beautiful, dreadful, something incredibly, enormously tragic, so baffling. To be confronted with the landscape of death, a landscape like that. What else could a painter do?” This startling literary quote from Zoran Mušič, a Dachau survivor and accomplished painter, creates an incredible amount of tension right from the start of Christopher Cognet’s Because I Was A Painter. These words command the viewer to ask what the significance of art is in the face of an event as horrible as the Holocaust. The great literary critic Theodor Adorno proclaimed that the tragedy was so grand, the barbarism so immense, that it has made art a mere floating abstraction, that after Auschwitz there could be no poetry or any other art.
Watch this documentary for a history that should be more widely known. Here, we have interviews with several artists from countries like Poland and France who survived the Nazi atrocities. We get their differing perspectives on the need to document their experience by visual means. See the representations of the horrors survivors and victims had to go through from works by these artists and other artists from that era. The drawings and paintings pierce the macabre imagination. With images of guards, victims being led to trains en route to the camps, a bird’s-eye view of the camps, a pregnant woman being gassed, and heaps of dead bodies, the images contain both aesthetic and historical power.
The importance of this film hinges on its subject: the struggle to create amidst unfathomable horror. It begs one to ask several philosophical questions. Are these visual works primarily art or historical documents? Can art that depicts the most disgusting examples of human evil ever be beautiful? What compels a human to create amidst such horrors? If Rainer Maria Rilke, the German lyric poet, was correct in saying that “beauty is nothing but terror’s beginning,” can the ultimate example of human terror contain this beauty, or does this extreme example actually annihilate any beauty the terror can evoke?
Some answers by artists include a man who proclaimed that the painter’s work was beautiful, although the Holocaust was horrible. Another man was convinced that nothing beautiful can ever be derived from the events. He challenges anyone to show him where beauty could be found. One man renounced any attempt at depicting the events realistically and only used emotionally charged expressiveness to form an experience of the camps. In a style that draws from the Futurists and Picasso’s Blue Period, he depicts a pregnant woman in a single canvas, her body and psyche degenerating in several scenes from sequential time superimposed onto each other.
With its imprint on global consciousness, the World War II era is an infinite vein where stories continue to be mined without the resources ever being exhausted. Because I Was A Painter explores one segment of this era and is a must-watch for the historical exposure. Although this is so, the film itself does not live up to the subject. It kicks off to an amazing start with a superb monologue, leading one to believe that the rest of the film will be sublime. Disappointingly, it drops the ball very early on. Many landscape shots were too drawn out, the director used several close ups to dramatize the artworks, even though these images didn’t need any additional dramatization. The pace never steadied into a good rhythm. Even though this film’s directorial technique leaves more to be desired, the well-researched compilation of art is worth it.