It’s become commonplace for documentary filmmakers to sharpen their production values with hopes of connecting with a larger audience. Popular films like Searching for Sugar Man or Finding Vivian Maier build clean narratives that feel more like fun detective stories than real-life depictions. It’s only after the curtains have dropped that the questions come to mind about their presentations. It’s easy to poke holes in their storytelling devices, but those directors found ways to connect with an audience. The opposite end of the spectrum holds stories with content that sounds fascinating but doesn’t translate so well on screen. Clever visual effects and upbeat music are nowhere to be found. The filmmakers’ hearts are in the right place, but the subject matter just sits there on the screen. There are intriguing themes present, yet they stay in the background due to a lack of creativity in the delivery method.
A prime example is Christophe Cognet’s Because I Was a Painter, which explores artwork created inside Nazi concentration camps during World War II. This subject promises an insightful look at the artists and their experiences at horrible sites like Auschwitz-Birkenau and Dachau. The challenge comes with the lack of forward movement to the narrative. Cognet meets with survivors about their art and explores other works in museum collections. Frequent on-screen text identifies the participants and locations yet fails to offer a clear vision. The mood is understandably somber, but it’s so morose that it’s hard to stay connected. Instead of engaging the audience with the artwork, Cognet is more intent on reminding us about the atrocities. The idea of beauty within these sketches is compelling, yet it’s mostly lost within the muted style. The camera meanders and keeps us at a distance from the art and the artists.
The film opens with a beautiful shot of trees blowing in the wind and slowly pans downward to reveal the stones of the Treblinka camp. It’s a poignant way to begin the film and connects the natural splendor with the memory of past atrocities. The next scene begins with Cognet’s voice reading an excerpt from Zoran Music, a Dachau survivor. These words include the source of the movie’s title and set up the investigation into the artwork. It’s an engaging opening and presents a conflict that never really comes together. There’s no consensus on whether drawings of piles of corpses are truly majestic. The sketches are often blurry and shot from afar, which makes them less shocking but loses the impact. When the focus of your documentary is the art, giving a more vivid look at that work might be wise.
During a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the camera pans slowly over the former camp. Cognet reveals a drawing of a crematorium on screen, and the real-life images appear right afterwards. It’s an effective tactic but used too infrequently to really sell the connection. It’s worth noting that there’s no music within the entire film, which brings an eerie feeling to the long scenes where the camera drifts along the ruins. It’s also striking to see the close-ups of victims’ eyes in the portraits of Franciszek Jazwiecki. Viewed on a wall during a visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum, these pictures are striking because they bring humanity to the victims. The slow camera movement and quiet showcase the weight of the loss. It’s also a rare case where we receive a clear look at the artwork; the camera often sits back in the distance.
Another interesting facet is the stencil art drawn on the walls of the concentration camps. This work was ordered by the SS and reveals that even the soldiers found value in softening the hard locations. There’s so much here that might shine within a book that could really explore the topic. Cognet leaves the material open to interpretations, which is rarely a bad move. However, the slow and gloomy approach tries too hard to signify its importance. The survivors have interesting stories to tell, but they’re given limited time to recall them. Instead, there are many partial glimpses at work that seems out of focus and distant. A simple comment from a survivor that “I think we can go on” while reviewing a sketch says so much more than passive looks at the material. The clinical view loses the personal impact and is too languid to nail down the themes on beauty within the belly of hell.