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Perspective: Holocaust films and the Oscars

Academy voters have a tendency to bestow trophies on feature films, actors and documentaries with Holocaust themes. What will that mean for 'In Darkness'?

February 19, 2012|By J. Hoberman, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • "In Darkness," by Agnieszka Holland, is nominated this year in the foreign-language category.
"In Darkness," by Agnieszka Holland, is nominated this year… (Jasmin Marla Dichant, Sony…)

The office pools have closed, let the drama begin: Silent film or 3-D talkie, Streep's Thatcher or Williams' Marilyn or maybe Viola Davis? Scorsese again? For me, the most fascinating question is which of the five foreign-film nominees will win.

If you picked Asghar Farhadi's "A Separation" — a visceral chamber drama exposing all manner of class, religious and gender fissures in contemporary Iran — you went for the favorite, winner of numerous critics' awards, "a movie you'll love from a country you hate," as the late Bingham Ray jokingly promoted "The White Balloon." If you selected the Israeli production "Footnote," you've identified yourself as a dreamer, choosing the longest of long shots, a post-Seinfeld comedy about father and son Talmudic scholars by director Joseph Cedar.

If, however, you opted for Agnieszka Holland's "In Darkness" — a harrowing, emotionally exhausting account of Polish Jews hiding from the Nazis in the sewers of Lvov — you allied yourself with history. In the 52 years since Shelley Winters won a supporting actress Oscar for "The Diary of Anne Frank," there have been 20 nominated features — including foreign-language and documentary films — that treated the Holocaust from the perspective of its victims.

Only two have gone home unrewarded, one directed by Holland. (In 1985, her "Angry Harvest" was defeated by "The Official Story," another tale of political atrocity, dramatizing Argentina's "dirty war." The other, also in a contest in the foreign-language film category, came the year after "The Diary of Anne Frank," when Gilles Pontecorvo's "Kapo," featuring Susan Strasberg, the on-stage Anne, as a privileged Auschwitz inmate, lost to Ingmar Bergman's "The Virgin Spring.")

No winner has been as successful as Steven Spielberg's 1993 "Schindler's List," which, nominated for 12 Oscars, took seven (including best picture), but interest in the subject predates Spielberg's film. After "Maus" was published in 1986, Art Spiegelman received so many movie offers that, as he said when reached by phone, it's "not even a number." Spiegelman fired his agent because "he kept approaching me with deals after I asked him not to." The persistence amazed him. "There was some guy with a gold chain who, when I told him that I didn't want 'Maus' made into a movie said, 'Yes — but if you did, what kind of movie would it be?'"

Spiegelman attributes this fascination to multiple factors — the Holocaust as Western civilization's "defining trauma," an ongoing "culture of victimization," the perennial appeal of the Nazi villain and an American desire to have "entertainment mixed with education."

I believe that the Holocaust resonates with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voters for a similar reason, namely the hope that movies be something more than just entertainment, although several Oscar-winning movies on the subject of Nazis and Jews, notably "The Producers" and "Cabaret," have surely been that.

On the other hand, it is undeniable that, whatever their intentions, few if any Oscar-nominated movies that treat the Holocaust have the audacity of Spiegelman's comic book or the gravitas of Claude Lanzmann's "Shoah" — and may even seem superfluous beside these magisterial works.

In any case, "Schindler's List" was no anomaly: 11 films were nominated before Spielberg's and 10 afterward. "Judgment at Nuremberg" won lead actor (Maximilian Schell) and adapted screenplay (Abby Mann) for 1961; the Czech-language "Shop on Main Street," starring Yiddish diva Ida Kaminska, and the Italian-language "Garden of the Finzi-Continis," directed by Vittorio De Sica, won foreign-language film in 1966 and 1972 respectively. Two classics of Holocaust Lite, "The Producers" took home the trophy for original screenplay for 1968, while 1972's "Cabaret" collected eight Oscars.

"Genocide" won for documentary in 1981, three years after NBC presented the miniseries "Holocaust" and four years before the epic documentary feature "Shoah"; Meryl Streep received her second Oscar for 1982's "Sophie's Choice." In 1988, Marcel Ophüls, whose documentary about Nazi-occupied France "The Sorrow and the Pity" lost in 1971 to "The Hellstrom Chronicle," won with his account of Nazi butcher Klaus Barbie, "Hotel Terminus."

In the wake of "Schindler's List," a Holocaust nomination in the documentary category was near obligatory: "Anne Frank Remembered" won for 1995, "The Long Way Home" for 1997, "The Last Days" for 1998 and "Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport" for 2000. The fictional winners were more surprising.

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