Are Holocaust films Oscar bait? - comment

An Oscar statue is pictured during a media preview of this year's Academy's Governors Ball in Los Angeles, California, U.S., January 31, 2020. (photo credit: MARIO ANZUONI/REUTERS)
An Oscar statue is pictured during a media preview of this year's Academy's Governors Ball in Los Angeles, California, U.S., January 31, 2020.
Without a doubt, the term “Oscar bait” has been associated with Holocaust films for decades. “When making Oscar predictions,” wrote Anne Thompson in IndieWire, “I’ve learned to never underestimate the Holocaust movie.” For generations in Hollywood there has been widespread murmuring that Holocaust productions are inordinately awarded. With the Oscars fast approaching and with the bubblegum Holocaust film Jojo Rabbit (2019) having been nominated for six Oscars, a deeper dive is in order.
Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) is certainly the most famous Holocaust film ever made and garnered the most Oscar nominations with a dozen nods and seven wins, including Best Picture, Director, and Writer. But the Holocaust film Oscar champion is Bob Fosse’s Cabaret (1972) with eight wins, including Best Director, Actress, and Supporting Actor. However, those two films are just the tip of the Oscar iceberg.
Lucy Mueller estimated in Review Journal in 2005 that of the thousands of films produced generally, the chances of winning any Oscar is approximately one in 11,500. Yet, from 1945 to 2020, 242 Holocaust feature films have been produced worldwide, of which 44 have been nominated for 150 Oscars. In fact, of the 64 American-produced Holocaust-related feature films made, 21 have won or been nominated for at least one Oscar, a 32% hit rate. Those 21 films were nominated for 109 awards.
As for foreign films and Oscars, from 1960 through 2015, 20 non-American Holocaust-related films were nominated and/or won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. To put that shocking factoid into perspective, on average just foreign (non-American) Holocaust films were celebrated at the Oscars from 1960 through 2015 once every 2¾ years. In fact, of the 176 non-American-produced Holocaust-related feature films made during that period, 11% have been nominated for Best Foreign Language Film.
It is worth noting, too, that the (American) Television Academy has been no less generous to Holocaust films when handing out Emmys. From 1974 through 2009, 32 American produced or co-produced Holocaust-related television programs or miniseries have aired, of which 20 (62.5%) have won or been nominated for at least one Emmy. Indeed, how bad must those other 12 Holocaust television productions have been not to have received any Emmy nominations?
This heavily awarded artform, however, has had very limited demand, which should not be particularly surprising. Without putting too fine a point on it, because few seek entertainment about tragedy, and even fewer about genocide, Holocaust films are far less viewed or commercially successful than most other film genres. In fact, 440 non-Holocaust feature films have grossed more than Schindler’s List ($325 million), by far the highest grossing Holocaust film in history.
In contrast, for example, Crocodile Dundee (1986) and The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water (2015) have grossed more than Schindler’s List. The Pianist (2002) and Inglourious Basterds (2009), each grossing approximately $120 million, do not even come close to breaking into the top thousand grossing films. Indeed, Avengers: Endgame (2019) has grossed more than all Holocaust films combined.
AT THE SAME time, the narrow audience of Holocaust filmgoers seems to inflate Holocaust film ratings, perhaps in solidarity with Holocaust victims. For example, the average IMDb user ratings of all Holocaust features is 7.0. This includes the following hideous films with an average IMDb user rating of just 4.3: Getting Away with Murder (1996), The Singing Forest (2003), The Memory Thief (2007), The Poet – Hearts of War (2007), Death in Love (2008), The Unborn (2009) and Auschwitz (2011).
To put that 7.0 in perspective, the average IMDb user rating for all 2,600 Oscar-nominated non-Holocaust films produced since 1945 is only 7.17. Further, the average IMDb user rating for all nominated Holocaust films is 7.53. Even those who have not sat through every Holocaust film can intuit that the IMDb user ratings for Holocaust films seem to be gifted with an extra half-point, like on an amateur golfer’s handicap scorecard, in deference to the subject matter, not quality.
The epitome of Oscars’ overt and relentless fawning over the Holocaust is the Academy’s impulsive recognition of this year’s sophomoric Jojo Rabbit, which was nominated for six trophies, including Best Picture, Supporting Actress, Screenplay, Costume Design, Production Design and Editing – and which is a bad movie, Holocaust or otherwise. Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit has, by far, been the lowest grossing of the seven Best Picture nominees that were released solely in theaters (setting aside the two additional streaming nominees, Marriage Story and The Irishman). Jojo Rabbit is also the second lowest rated 2020 Best Picture nominee by IMDb users, has the second lowest number of voters and has the lowest Metascore (aggregate of critical reviews), a shockingly low 58 out of 100.
For those unaware, Jojo Rabbit, the newest cupcake of Holocaust films, made a tiny splash upon its American release in the fall of 2020. Drabbled with big-name stars, Sam Rockwell and Scarlett Johansson, and blended with saccharine performances from adorable children, it was all cooked up in an Easy-Bake Oven, using rudimentary ingredients that offer bite-sized kitsch when a real meal is expected. This Righteous Gentile film set in 1944 Germany was a puerile attempt at comedy and is the essence of overt Holocaust commercialization, complete with horrible accents, inappropriate costuming, inane dialogue and anachronistic music starting with the Beatles’ German version of “I want to Hold Your Hand” from their 1964 album Something New.
While more than a dozen Holocaust comedies have been made – some superb, including Harold and Maude (1971) and Inglourious Basterds – Jojo Rabbit is a sloppy confection of Benny Hill slathered over Jewish suffering. It epitomizes the danger of letting any yahoo whip up a Holocaust soufflé. As a rule: if the most vicious German in a Holocaust film (in this case, Sam Rockwell’s character) turns out to be a pussycat, it is a bad Holocaust film.
Of course, the real elephant in the room is the tendency to view any attack on Holocaust films as a Trojan horse for antisemitism. The tacit logic has been that any such scrutiny invites accusations that Hollywood is controlled by Jews, suggesting that any discussion about Oscar bait is simply a form of Jew-baiting. This is especially dicey considering the overt pressure directed at the Motion Picture Academy for more minority representation over the past few decades.
CERTAINLY SINCE 1990 when Spike Lee was robbed of Best Picture and Director Oscars for Do the Right Thing (1989) by the Judeocentric Driving Miss Daisy (1989), these questions have been fair game. Was 12 Years a Slave (2013) better than Nebraska (2013), American Hustle (2013), Dallas Buyers Club (2013) or Her (2013), or did (the black) Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave win Best Picture because Oscar had rebuffed Spike Lee and no black director or producer had ever won Best Director or Best Picture until 12 Years a Slave?
Is it racist during these times of immigration politics to point out that Mexicans have won the Best Director Oscar five out of the last six years? Are the Oscars solely about art when the headline in Variety is “Backlash Grows as Oscars Snub Women Directors Yet Again”?
The Oscars are as political today as they were in the 1950s when Hollywood blacklisted vulnerable members to appease antisemitic, red-baiting authoritarians in Washington, DC. A decade later, the ground shifted so fast for the Academy that it had to ditch its repressive Motion Picture Production Code, which they replaced with a homophobic MPAA rating system. And if there is any doubt that Oscar swings with the times, imagine if The Pianist had been released in 2018 instead of in 2002; fat chance that Frances McDormand, Natalie Portman or Salma Hayek would have presented the Best Director statue to Roman Polanski.
In the end, many great Holocaust films have been made, even by Americans. In fact, in my book I recommend 12 American-produced Holocaust features, eight of which have been Oscar-nominated, with four winners. But many great Holocaust films made worldwide have fallen through the cracks, like the greatest Holocaust film ever made, Tim Blake Nelson’s The Grey Zone (2001), starring Harvey Keitel (who was also an executive producer), David Arquette, Steve Buscemi, Michael Stuhlbarg and Mira Sorvino.
The Grey Zone was far superior to the 2002 Oscar winners A Beautiful Mind (2001) (Best Picture and Director), Training Day (2001) (Actor), Iris (2001) (Supporting Actor), Gosford Park (2001) (Writing), Black Hawk Down (2001) (Editing), Pearl Harbor (2001) (Sound Editing) and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) (Cinematography). But The Grey Zone was released two days after 9/11 and was euphemistically never seen again.
So, the specific question remains: why does the Academy nominate and award so many Holocaust films, especially to twaddle like Jojo Rabbit? Art is not math. Oscar voters are not computers. And members of the Academy all believe that they are faithfully representing their artform.
Objectively, however, despite all the awards and the sometimes-elevated subject matter, Holocaust films are not inherently superior to other film genres; Holocaust films simply have a more avid audience.
The writer is a lecturer for Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies. This article is an excerpt from his forthcoming book The Holocaust Film Bible: 75 Years of Narrative Holocaust Film (1945-2020).