Biographer Mary Felstiner and filmmaker Frans Weisz expound on the life and work of artist Charlotte Salomon.

Dutch Director's Obsession Leads to Bay Area

Michael Fox June 15, 2011

The Dutch cameraman and sound recorder bobbed and weaved, filming their countryman Frans Weisz and various honored guests in the Contemporary Jewish Museum auditorium. Ostensibly Weisz was there to talk about his in-progress documentary on Charlotte Salomon, a young German Jewish artist who compulsively created a 1,300-picture operetta (complete with musical cues) in the South of France in the early 1940s before she was arrested, deported and killed by the Nazis. It’s conceivable that some verité snippets of last Sunday afternoon’s casual event will find their way into the documentary, but this shoot wasn’t the crew’s primary focus.

The director of nearly two dozen features, including the career-launching hit The Burglar (1972), the critically acclaimed Havinck (1987), and Polonaise (1989), an Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film that played the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, Weisz has also enjoyed success as a director of television (The Rest Is Silence received a Golden Gate Award Certificate of Merit from the San Francisco International Film Festival in 2000) and theater, and he made a pile as a director of commercials. All that work, all those subjects, yet one figure retains her hold on him: Charlotte Salomon.

“I describe my life as B.C. and A.C.,” the garrulous 72-year-old said prior to the CJM event. “Before Charlotte and After Charlotte.”

At the moment that The Burglar opened to big crowds in Amsterdam, Weisz received a call from a friend instructing him to drop everything and catch an exhibit closing that day at the Jewish Historical Museum. The show was Salomon’s relentless autobiographical operetta, “Life? Or Theatre?,” and it bowled Weisz over.

He eventually devoted five years to researching Salomon’s life, culminating in his moving 1981 film Charlotte. Weisz learned that Salomon’s opus had been carefully protected during the Occupation and eventually delivered to her parents, who had survived the war in Holland. They, in turn, bequeathed the work to the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam. At an early stage of his research process, Charlotte’s stepmother gave Weisz a letter the artist had written to her lover 35 years earlier.

“It’s my raison d’etre, my Rosebud, I don’t know what to call it,” Weisz says.

Plainly, one film was not enough to quench Weisz’s fascination with Charlotte. His forthcoming documentary, which he resumes editing upon his return home this week with an eye toward premiering at IDFA (International Documentary Festival Amsterdam) in November, is shaping up to be a doc-narrative hybrid as well as a personal doc.

Weisz, his producer and two-man crew trekked all the way to the Bay Area for one of the doc elements—an interview with Mary Lowenthal Felstiner, the Palo Alto-based author of the 1994 biography, To Paint Her Life: Charlotte Salomon in the Nazi Era. They filmed Felstiner after hours at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in the 300-piece touring exhibition “Charlotte Salomon: Life? Or Theatre?” (on view through July 31, 2011). Weisz scored a piece of luck when Valerie Kaempf, who had lived with Salomon in France, flew in from New York to meet him and sit for an interview.

“One of the subjects in all my films is the passage of time,” Weisz told the audience. “Film is the only medium where a newborn baby can become an 80-year-old man in one dissolve.”

Time passes, yet time stands still. See, Weisz’s identification with Charlotte Salomon is not all that mysterious. He was only two when his parents sent him into hiding, and he never saw his actor father again. Geza L. Weisz died at Auschwitz, but he lives forever in a film clip that will almost certainly find its way into his son’s new film.

Notes from the Underground
July 1 is the deadline for the July edition of Rough Cuts. The work-in-progress documentary series resumes July 21 at the Lab. Get all the details at sfroughcuts.com....UC Press has pushed the publication of Emily W. Leider’s Myrna Loy: The Only Good Girl in Hollywood back a month to October 2011.

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