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Keira Knightley attends the Misbehaviour world premiere in London, England, in March 2020.Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images

Until her agent sent her the script, Keira Knightley had never heard of Charlotte Salomon. Most people haven’t.

The Jewish painter was born in Berlin in 1917, and was killed the day she arrived at Auschwitz, five months pregnant, aged 26. But in her final 18 months, under the soot clouds of Nazism, she made an explosion of more than 1,000 gouaches that told the story of her life in vivid colours, often swirled over with text, and managed to send them to a non-Jewish ally who kept them safe. The collected work, entitled Life? Or Theatre?, is considered a Gesamtkunstwerk (the German compound noun for a multimedia opus) and a grandmother to the graphic novel.

Over the decades Salomon’s paintings – which are housed at the Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam – were made into a book and an exhibition catalogue, and inspired a documentary, an opera, a novel, a ballet and several plays. Now her story is poised to reach its widest audience yet, as an animated film, Charlotte, a Canada-France-Belgium co-production. (Notable Canadians involved include the producers Robert Lantos, Xavier Dolan and Julia Rosenberg; the co-writer David Bezmozgis; and the actor Henry Czerny.) Knightley voices Charlotte in English; Marion Cotillard in French.

“The tragedy of the tale is absolute, there’s no getting around that,” Knightley, 37, said in a recent phone interview. “The Holocaust was an attempt to annihilate the Jewish people and their culture. But Charlotte fought to express herself and her culture, and managed to do an extraordinary work of art in the face of such suffering and devastation. I find that hopeful – that the human spirit, even when people are attempting to destroy it, can create such beauty.”

Charlotte is Knightley’s first foray into animation, and she found the process continually surprising. “I suddenly realized how much I do with my face,” she says, laughing. “I had to think about what I could inject into my voice to tell more story.”

Though the animation was done after the voices were recorded, Knightley saw pencil sketches that gave her an idea of the film’s 2-D style, which echoes Salomon’s paintings. The co-directors Tahir Rana and Eric Warin were precise about what words they wanted their actors to hit, and filmed their faces to use their expressions later. “They would say things like, ‘She’s going to stand up here, so we need you to stop and do whatever your standing-up noise would be,” Knightley recalls. “And I’m thinking, ‘I don’t know what my standing-up noise is.’ What vocal thing do I do when I’m opening a cupboard? It was all so interesting, stuff I hadn’t thought about before.”

The character Charlotte, however, is very much in line with the women Knightley wants to play – women who make waves, who stand up for themselves: the lead characters in Colette and Anna Karenina. The code breaker Joan Clarke in The Imitation Game; the feisty Elizabeths in Pride and Prejudice and the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.

“It’s difficult to be human, difficult to be a woman, difficult to be true to yourself,” Knightley says. “I find it inspiring playing women who manage to be their truest selves in a society that doesn’t celebrate that. That’s a constant thread through my work – that person who feels like she doesn’t quite fit into the space that she’s given, and is trying to find more space. I’m drawn to women who have the courage to go against the norm, who question the society they live in, and try to push that society forward in whatever way they can.

“It’s not always a courage I have myself,” she continues. “I think I play people often where I want a bit of their courage. It’s nice to stand in their shoes for a bit and go, ‘Ah, that’s what that feels like.’ It’s messy. It’s not easy. But it’s vital.”

I argue that Knightley has shown courage, in talking openly about mental-health issues, her struggles with PTSD and panic attacks. “I didn’t find it helpful to try to present myself as someone more perfect and stronger than I was,” she replies. “To try to create a view of myself that was in some way less than human, by pretending I didn’t have all the cracks you have when you’re a human being. If you’re in the public sphere, the only thing you can do to be helpful in any way is to admit to your struggles, your human frailties. Which are going to be there however successful you are in your career, however much money you have.

“People can feel very ashamed for not being as strong as they think they should be, as perfect as they think they should be,” she adds. “Shame is a hard one to live with. I think by admitting your cracks, it helps you feel a bit stronger.”

Married to the musician James Righton since 2013, Knightley tries to teach their two daughters “to stand on their own two feet, to be themselves, and to look after themselves,” she says. “I’m constantly trying to look at the people they’re becoming, and support the people they’re becoming, and not trying to force them into any holes they don’t fit into.” She laughs again. “And pleases and thank yous are really great, too.”

Though she hasn’t seen Life? Or Theatre? in person, Knightley now owns a book of 80 images culled from the opus. She’s especially drawn to one self-portrait rendered as three faces, three different expressions, facets of a whole. “You can’t see Charlotte’s work and not think, ‘This is a life force,’” Knightley sums up. “She did not give in, right to the last possible moment, being the person she was trying to be.”

Charlotte opens in select theatres April 22

Special to The Globe and Mail

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