While mainstream critics speculate endlessly on
what movie, director or actress will waltz off with the Oscar and
Golden Globe trophies, this occasional reviewer focuses each year on
the annual foreign film contenders.
of this odd preference lies in the chauvinistic hope that the top prize
will finally go to the Israeli entry. But beyond that lies the belief
that foreign-language movies reflect to some extent the concerns and
attitudes of their respective home audiences.
If this argument holds water, the next question - if one writes
mainly for Jewish readers - is how many films deal with topics of
particular Jewish interest, and how directors handle such material.
For instance, the fact that almost 65 years after the end of
the Holocaust and the Nazi regime, producers keep coming up with new
films about this era, surely indicates that the savvy studio moneymen
believe that there are large audiences out there ready to buy tickets
for such pictures.
Furthermore, such movies help us track changing attitudes toward even so horrific and sensitive a subject as the Holocaust.
During the initial post-war years, victims, perpetrators and the
popular media largely kept their silence. Once that silence was broken,
documentaries or feature movies based on actual happenings exposed the
horror in graphic details.
By the late 1990s, the Italian film Life is Beautiful
a new phase by daring to introduce touches of humor into the genre. In
just the last few months, we have seen another mutation with Defiance
and Inglourious Basterds,
in which the Jew morphs from victim into avenger.
For the March 7 Academy Awards gala, 65 countries from Albania
to Vietnam have submitted their top films. Using somewhat arbitrary
criteria to define the boundaries of "Jewish interest," this analysis
qualified seven submissions.
The Czech and Slovak films deal directly with the wartime fate
of Jews in Nazi-occupied countries, while the entries from Norway and
the Netherlands focus on the resistance movements in their respective
Slovenia, once part of Yugoslavia, uses the crime caper format
for its film to examine what happens when the war's resistance fighters
take bloody revenge on the collaborators, and in turn are held
accountable when the political wheel turns again.
Israel's choice, Ajami,
probes Arab-Arab and Arab-Jewish
tensions in Jaffa, while the German entry goes back into the country's
past to explore the roots of the fascism to come.
INTERESTINGLY, the two films dealing directly with the
persecution and murder of Jews under Nazi occupation come from the
Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic. Both countries, then a united
Czechoslovakia, were under Communist rule during the immediate post-war
decades, when the fate of Jews as the primary Nazi target was largely
The interplay and fate of mixed marriages under Hitler's rule has intrigued filmmakers for some time.
In the earlier German movie Rosenstrasse,
the gentile wives sought to save their Jewish husbands, while in this year's Czech entry, Protektor
, it is the husband Emil who tries to protect his Jewish wife Hana.
Hana was a popular movie star in the 1930s and Emil a rising
radio broadcaster. As the Nazi vise tightens, Emil becomes a
collaborator and mouthpiece for the German occupiers to better shield
his wife, but gradually the external and internal tensions erode the
Ironically, the drama includes a second "Protektor" - the
official title of Nazi governor Reinhard Heydrich, whose assassination
by Czech patriots brings the various conflicts to a climax.
Czech director Marek Najbrt evokes the mood and the moral
choices of wartime, reflected both in the headlines and in the bedroom,
with considerable fidelity.
The Slovak picture Broken Promise
falls into the
category of incredible Holocaust survival stories, this one based on
the real life of Martin Friedmann-Petrasek, a survivor now living in
the Los Angeles area.
Thanks mainly to his soccer playing prowess, Martin survives a
labor camp, selection for Auschwitz, and then double pneumonia, to
ultimately escape and join the resistance.
As in other recent European films, director Jiri Chlumsky
graphically shows the vicious anti-Semitism of the local population and
among Soviet partisans, slightly balanced by a courageous Catholic
The film's main strength lies in the realistic performance by Samo Spizak in the role of Martin.
TWO MORE conventional war dramas are Norway's Max Manus
and Holland's Winter in Wartime
Manus, played by Aksee Hennie, was a legendary Norwegian resistance
fighter whose daring sabotage exploits against the German occupiers
gave heart to his countrymen and now makes for a slam-bang action
However, the movie does not minimize the emotional toll of war
on Manus, who saw most of his comrades die by execution or torture.
Co-producer John Jacobsen noted in a phone interview that there
has been a strong revival of interest in World War II among young
Norwegians, and the interest is apparently shared in other countries.
"Manus" has been sold to 35, with China first in line.
Holland's Winter in Wartime
combines the storylines of a
young boy who must suddenly shoulder adult responsibilities, relations
between father and son, and bravery and betrayal within one Dutch
Set in a Dutch village during the final, bitterly cold winter
months of World War II, 14-year-old Michiel discovers a wounded British
pilot hiding in the forest and makes it his mission to save the aviator
and help him escape.
The beautifully photographed film, directed by Martin
Koolhoven, brings home the toll of war, even on its "heroes" and
especially on the civilian population.
Slovenia's Landscape 2
moves history's timeline to the
weeks following liberation of the then Yugoslav republic, when a
Communist general orders the mass shooting of all Nazi collaborators.
Decades later, the killing spree is denounced by a new
government, a small-time thief accidentally discovers incriminating
evidence against the general, and the chase is on. Landscape 2
is of some political interest, but so brutal as to turn off all but the most devoted aficionados of slasher films.
THE ISRAELI entry, Ajami
takes its name from the tough Jaffa neighborhood, where Arabs and Jews
live side-by-side but segregated, in mutual suspicion and hostility.
Co-written and directed by two young Israelis, the Jewish Yaron
Shani and the Christian Arab Scandar Copti, the picture again proves
the willingness of Israeli filmmakers, and of the Israeli government
that subsidizes them, to honestly probe some of the most painful
problems facing the country.
Germany's The White Ribbon
is a movie easier to admire for its technical competence than to embrace.
Set in a picture-perfect German village, shortly before the
outbreak of World War I, director Michael Haneke dispassionately probes
beneath the peaceful surface to reveal malice, child abuse, religious
oppression, class warfare, sexual repression and a variety of other
The film is somewhat cold, Variety calls it "medicinal'" but
critics have almost universally clasped it to their collective bosom.
Their consensus is that that in the village's authoritarian family life
and obedience to authority lay the seeds which sprouted into Nazism 20
raises many questions and gives few clear answers but, alongside France's A Prophet
appears to be the current frontrunner for foreign-language Oscar
honors. The German movie was the top pick of the New York Film Critics
One frequent past controversy centered on how to designate the
origin of entries from one conflicted place - Palestine? Palestinian
Authority? Palestinian Territories? That problem, at least, has been
temporarily resolved, since no Palestinian film was submitted this