Trying to unravel artists mystery, filmmaker journeys to San Francisco

One film was not enough to quench Frans Weisz’s fascination with artist Charlotte Salomon.

“I describe my life as B.C. and A.C. — before Charlotte and after Charlotte,” the voluble Dutch film director said during a brief, jam-packed trip to the Bay Area with his film crew, which is currently working on a documentary about Salomon’s life.

The pivotal event took place in 1972, when a friend alerted Weisz to an exhibit ending that day at the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam. Salomon fled Berlin to the south of France in 1940 and devoted herself to painting 1,300 scenes of her life and family with dialogue, soliloquies and music.

Salomon died in 1943 in Auschwitz — where Weisz’s father met the same fate a year later — but her magnum opus, which she titled “Life? Or Theatre?: A Play with Music,” survived intact and eventually was presented to her parents. They had weathered the war in Holland, and in appreciation they donated the massive work to the Amsterdam museum.

“Charlotte Salomon: Life? Or Theatre?,” a 300-piece touring exhibition, is currently at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.

Weisz wasn’t exactly lured to San Francisco by the show, but rather to film Mary Felstiner, the Palo Alto author of the 1994 biography “To Paint Her Life: Charlotte Salomon in the Nazi Era.” They conducted their interview after-hours at the CJM and reconvened — with Weisz’s producer, cameraman and sound recorder documenting the proceedings — on June 12 for a public discussion of Salomon’s work and Weisz’s forthcoming documentary.

“There is no one, anymore, who can tell us the background story,” Weisz told the audience of around 50 people. “It was the desire of the museum [in Amsterdam] to have the story told of how the work got to Holland.”

Weisz, 72, has directed more than two dozen films, a couple of TV movies and miniseries, several plays and dozens of commercials in his remarkable career, but he’d never made a documentary. However, he had immersed himself in Salomon’s life and work for several years in the late 1970s, culminating in the 1981 feature film “Charlotte.”

That movie marked a turning point in Weisz’s career, away from genre movies and toward more personal films, often with Jewish themes. “Polonaise” (1989), to cite one example, was nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign language film and played the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

Weisz’s connection to Salomon never wavered, in part because of some enduring mysteries; for example, the title she chose for her most ambitious and most personal work, “Life? Or Theatre?”

“When I wrote the script, one of the premises was I wanted to find out what the question marks were,” Weisz told the crowd. “She didn’t mean to make art. She wanted to tell a story.”

Weisz confessed that he feels much less constrained about how he depicts Salomon in the documentary than he did 30 years ago in the narrative feature. The difference? The artist’s strong-willed stepmother, the opera singer Paula Salomon-Lundberg, died in 2000 (at the age of 103).

“I took Paula’s word for everything,” he recalled. “The documentary is far more about staying close to Charlotte’s reality, as she tried to tell it.”

Given Weisz’s direct connection to the Holocaust, it’s likely that the documentary — which he is editing this summer and expects to finish in the fall — will also incorporate his reality. It’s hard to imagine anyone objecting.

As Felstiner said to Weisz at the conclusion of the event, “You’ve become part of her story now.”

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.