Artists Reflect on Life in Nazi Camps in Because I Was a Painter


“I drew all of that because I was a painter. It was an inner necessity.” So goes the opening statement of Christophe Cognet’s documentary focusing on art created in and on the subject of Nazi camps.

The quote’s excerpted from a lecture by artist and Dachau survivor Zoran Music and read aloud on camera by the director; Cognet’s further examination of the statement leads him to the sites of concentration camps across Europe, the salvaged artworks featured at the Ghetto Fighters’ House museum in Israel, and the homes and studios of a handful of artists. Cognet’s curiosity is less focused on recovering factual information or cataloging artifacts than it is in delving into the minds of these artists as they reflect, in words and art, on their own memories of the Holocaust.

Whether he succeeds depends on your need for closure, since Cognet’s work is more devoted to thought about aesthetics than aesthetics themselves. His modest film represents a break from the rigorous historical work typically associated with documentaries about the Holocaust, and its open-ended nature is a fitting analogue to ongoing questions about testimony and healing. Such an approach allows for natural dissent: “What beauty?” artist Samuel Willenberg shoots back at his interviewer when asked about the aesthetic experience of life in the camps.

“There is no beauty.” At the same time (and despite its abstract humanist ambitions), Cognet’s film is tied to physical artifacts — the rustling of parchment paper under the careful fingers of gloved curators, the delicate preservation of graphite on paper, the silent buildings of abandoned camps and their hollow implication of absent bodies. Cognet’s footage of Willenberg sketching in a reedy meadow, meanwhile, presents a quietly powerful possibility — that creation is a human impulse more enduring than destruction.