Still working the Jewish angle

Many of the foreign language Oscar contenders still deal with Holocaust.

By TOM TUGEND
January 20, 2010 07:41
Brad Pitt in Inglorious Bastards

brad pitt inglorious bastards 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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LOS ANGELES - 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.

Part 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.

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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 opened 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.

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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 countries.

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 ignored.

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 marriage.

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 priest.

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 picture.

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 family.

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 sins.

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 years later.

White Ribbon 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 Circle.

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 year.

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