Still working the Jewish angle in Hollywood

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

Inglorious Basterds 88 248 (photo credit: Universal Studios)
Inglorious Basterds 88 248
(photo credit: Universal Studios)

While mainstream critics speculate endlessly onwhat movie, director or actress will waltz off with the Oscar andGolden Globe trophies, this occasional reviewer focuses each year onthe annual foreign film contenders.

Partof this odd preference lies in the chauvinistic hope that the top prizewill finally go to the Israeli entry. But beyond that lies the beliefthat foreign-language movies reflect to some extent the concerns andattitudes of their respective home audiences.

If this argument holds water, the next question - if one writesmainly for Jewish readers - is how many films deal with topics ofparticular Jewish interest, and how directors handle such material.

For instance, the fact that almost 65 years after the end ofthe Holocaust and the Nazi regime, producers keep coming up with newfilms about this era, surely indicates that the savvy studio moneymenbelieve that there are large audiences out there ready to buy ticketsfor 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 thepopular media largely kept their silence. Once that silence was broken,documentaries or feature movies based on actual happenings exposed thehorror in graphic details.

By the late 1990s, the Italian film Life is Beautiful openeda new phase by daring to introduce touches of humor into the genre. Injust 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 Albaniato Vietnam have submitted their top films. Using somewhat arbitrarycriteria to define the boundaries of "Jewish interest," this analysisqualified seven submissions.

The Czech and Slovak films deal directly with the wartime fateof Jews in Nazi-occupied countries, while the entries from Norway andthe Netherlands focus on the resistance movements in their respectivecountries.

Slovenia, once part of Yugoslavia, uses the crime caper formatfor its film to examine what happens when the war's resistance fighterstake bloody revenge on the collaborators, and in turn are heldaccountable when the political wheel turns again.

Israel's choice, Ajami, probes Arab-Arab and Arab-Jewishtensions in Jaffa, while the German entry goes back into the country'spast to explore the roots of the fascism to come.

INTERESTINGLY, the two films dealing directly with thepersecution and murder of Jews under Nazi occupation come from theCzech Republic and the Slovak Republic. Both countries, then a unitedCzechoslovakia, were under Communist rule during the immediate post-wardecades, when the fate of Jews as the primary Nazi target was largelyignored.

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 risingradio broadcaster. As the Nazi vise tightens, Emil becomes acollaborator and mouthpiece for the German occupiers to better shieldhis wife, but gradually the external and internal tensions erode themarriage.

Ironically, the drama includes a second "Protektor" - theofficial title of Nazi governor Reinhard Heydrich, whose assassinationby Czech patriots brings the various conflicts to a climax.

Czech director Marek Najbrt evokes the mood and the moralchoices of wartime, reflected both in the headlines and in the bedroom,with considerable fidelity.

The Slovak picture Broken Promise falls into thecategory of incredible Holocaust survival stories, this one based onthe real life of Martin Friedmann-Petrasek, a survivor now living inthe Los Angeles area.

Thanks mainly to his soccer playing prowess, Martin survives alabor camp, selection for Auschwitz, and then double pneumonia, toultimately escape and join the resistance.

As in other recent European films, director Jiri Chlumskygraphically shows the vicious anti-Semitism of the local population andamong Soviet partisans, slightly balanced by a courageous Catholicpriest.

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 resistancefighter whose daring sabotage exploits against the German occupiersgave heart to his countrymen and now makes for a slam-bang actionpicture.

However, the movie does not minimize the emotional toll of waron Manus, who saw most of his comrades die by execution or torture.

Co-producer John Jacobsen noted in a phone interview that therehas been a strong revival of interest in World War II among youngNorwegians, 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 ayoung boy who must suddenly shoulder adult responsibilities, relationsbetween father and son, and bravery and betrayal within one Dutchfamily.

Set in a Dutch village during the final, bitterly cold wintermonths of World War II, 14-year-old Michiel discovers a wounded Britishpilot hiding in the forest and makes it his mission to save the aviatorand help him escape.

The beautifully photographed film, directed by MartinKoolhoven, brings home the toll of war, even on its "heroes" andespecially on the civilian population.

Slovenia's Landscape 2 moves history's timeline to theweeks following liberation of the then Yugoslav republic, when aCommunist general orders the mass shooting of all Nazi collaborators.

Decades later, the killing spree is denounced by a newgovernment, a small-time thief accidentally discovers incriminatingevidence 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 Jewslive side-by-side but segregated, in mutual suspicion and hostility.

Co-written and directed by two young Israelis, the Jewish YaronShani and the Christian Arab Scandar Copti, the picture again provesthe willingness of Israeli filmmakers, and of the Israeli governmentthat subsidizes them, to honestly probe some of the most painfulproblems 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 theoutbreak of World War I, director Michael Haneke dispassionately probesbeneath the peaceful surface to reveal malice, child abuse, religiousoppression, class warfare, sexual repression and a variety of othersins.

The film is somewhat cold, Variety calls it "medicinal'" butcritics have almost universally clasped it to their collective bosom.Their consensus is that that in the village's authoritarian family lifeand obedience to authority lay the seeds which sprouted into Nazism 20years 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 Oscarhonors. The German movie was the top pick of the New York Film CriticsCircle.

One frequent past controversy centered on how to designate theorigin of entries from one conflicted place - Palestine? PalestinianAuthority? Palestinian Territories? That problem, at least, has beentemporarily resolved, since no Palestinian film was submitted thisyear.