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Foreign films revisit recent history

December 13, 2012|By Sam Adams
  • Director Michael Haneke, left, Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant work on the movie "Amour."
Director Michael Haneke, left, Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant… (Denis Manin / Sony Pictures…)

The process by which a film becomes its home country's submission for the Academy Award for foreign-language film is a convoluted and sometimes opaque one, involving some combination of politics, domestic box office, international acclaim, favoritism and, somewhere in the mix, merit.

The record 71 submissions for the 2013 Oscars are as varied as their native lands: Iceland's "The Deep" recounts a harrowing real-life tale of survival at sea with enough thrills to help director Baltasar Kormákur start a second career as an American action-movie director. Michael Haneke's "Amour," the Austrian entry, is a typically astringent work from the auteur of "Caché" and "Funny Games," but the focus on an elderly couple as the wife nears the end of her life is as close as he's come to sentimentality. "Pietà," from Korea's Kim Ki-duk, won Venice's top prize with its psychotronic tale of the reunion between a brutal loan shark and a woman who claims to be his long-lost mother.

A number of submissions, though, coalesce around a theme, or rather an approach, using eccentric perspectives to reexamine recent history. Denmark's "A Royal Affair" plays its story of Enlightenment infidelity by the costume-drama book, but Canada's "War Witch," directed by Kim Nguyen, jumps across the Atlantic to sub-Saharan Africa, recounting the fate of child soldiers through the eyes of a pregnant 14-year-old girl.

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There would seem to be little place for comedy in the waning days of the Pinochet dictatorship, but Chile's Pablo Larraín found an opportunity for dark-hued humor by focusing on the advertising executives charged with filling the half-hour of television given over nightly to arguments for and against Pinochet's ouster. "No," named for the plebiscite vote that eventually cast Pinochet out, was shot on vintage three-quarter-inch video cameras, so that new footage centered on Gael Garcia Bernal's adman would mesh seamlessly with the reams of archival footage (about a third of the final film). "What we shot became a documentary," Larraín says, "and the documentary became fiction."

Navigating the ever-shifting relationship between the past and the present is a tricky task, one approached delicately by Christian Petzold, director of Germany's "Barbara." Set in the waning days of East Germany, the film follows a disgraced doctor (Nina Hoss) who is planning an escape to the West but still finds herself tied to the East. Petzold, who grew up on both sides of the wall, says that the global economic crisis has prompted Germany to recall an era many had already begun to forget, and question whether the promise of a capitalist utopia was all it was made out to be.

In recreating the past, Petzold, who had previously shied away from period pieces, discovered a kind of uncanny valley effect in recreating the past. "We worked very hard to be authentic with each little thing: what is on the table, the hairstyles, the clothes," he recalls. "With the GDR, when you are very authentic, it looks more like a dream than reality."

Rather than fashioning a seamless facsimile, Petzold aimed for audiences to contemplate the way the past survives in the present, in structures, in memory, even in the way people move. "Someone said that when you make a period picture, you can't show the sky, because the sky is always the sky of the present," he says. "So many period pictures are in studios, and you never see wind; the water is artificial. I wanted to make both in 'Barbara.' I wanted to see the wind and the sky of today and the people of the past."

"Lore," directed by Cate Shortland, deals with an even more contentious period of German history, even though for Oscar's purposes the film is Australian. In fact, says Shortland, it's possible that the film, whose protagonist is the daughter of a Nazi officer, could only have been made by an outsider. "A lot of Germans, including my producers, said, 'A German would not make this film.' I think that's why they allowed me to come in and do it."

Shortland, who spent two of the eight years it's been since her first feature working with HIV patients in South Africa, sees the movie as much as a reflection on her own country's sins as on German war guilt. "I come from a country where there is no responsibility," she says.

"It's just pushed down and pushed down until it's just this big, black, ugly hole, and it's filled with anger and hatred toward the indigenous people. For me, making the film was also a way of looking at how we deal with history, and the transparency with which Germans have dealt with history. If we could do just 10% of that in Australia, we'd be such a richer, fuller, more beautiful country than we are at the moment."

For Larraín, who calls "No" the last part of an unplanned trilogy about Chilean history, reckoning with the past is a task too large for a film, or even three, to accomplish. "I've been trying to understand through these movies what happened to my country," he says, "and I'll tell you: I did three movies, and I didn't get any answers."


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