February 24, 2020

Israel Film Festival Honoree Arthur Cohn Brings ‘The Etruscan Smile’ to L.A.

Arthur Cohn; Photo courtesy of Arthur Cohn

Veteran producer Arthur Cohn has six Oscars, three honorary doctorates, numerous lifetime achievement and humanitarian honors and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. This month, coinciding with the release of his 28th film, “The Etruscan Smile,” Cohn will receive the Israel Film Festival’s 2019 Lifetime Achievement Award at the opening night gala on Nov. 12. He also will participate in a Q&A after the film’s screening on Nov. 13.

“I am very honored by this recognition,” Cohn told the Journal. “I am also delighted that ‘The Etruscan Smile’ will be shown at the festival. Even though the film seems to have no connection with Israel, there were quite a few Israeli forces behind it.” 

The film’s co-directors, Mihal Brezis and Oded Binnun, are Israeli; Cohn’s son Emanuel is an assistant producer and appears in the film; and daughter Nurith was the music supervisor. Both live in Israel.

Cohn has wanted to make “The Etruscan Smile” since he read and acquired the rights to José Luis Sampedro’s novel in the 1990s, but none of the scripts he commissioned satisfied him until 2016. “My patience and persistence and especially my belief in this wonderful story, paid off,” he said, noting that changes were minimal, including moving its location from Italy to Scotland and San Francisco.

A heartwarming family drama that has won several film festival prizes, the movie is about a dying Scotsman (Brian Cox), his estranged son (JJ Feild), and the bond between a grandfather and his baby grandson. 

“A central theme of this film certainly is to live to our fullest till our last breath and to tell people we love that we love them,” Cohn said. The characters are not Jewish, but he sees “many Jewish elements in the story, like the generational dialogue and handing over a legacy to the next generation.” 

The son of German and Swiss Zionist parents, Cohn was born and raised in Basel, Switzerland. His grandfather was Rabbi Arthur Cohn, who succeeded in persuading Theodor Herzl to hold the first Zionist congress in the city in 1897. 

“We still have the written thank you letter from Herzl to my grandfather at home,” Cohn said. His late father, Marcus Cohn, was a lawyer who saved many Jews from the Nazis. He moved to Israel in 1949 and became Israel’s assistant attorney general. 

While Cohn’s main residence is in Basel, the “proud Zionist” visits Israel several times a year. “I like to spend Jewish holidays in Jerusalem, the most spiritual place on this planet,” he said. He had a traditional Jewish upbringing that plays into his philosophy today. His parents taught him, “ ‘We give you roots and wings. Roots means to maintain our Jewish tradition and to keep our cultural and spiritual legacy. Wings means to fly out and to create something new on your own,’ ” Cohn said. “In my life, I have always tried to combine both roots and wings.”

Not surprisingly, some of his best-known films have Jewish themes. “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis” and documentaries “The Final Solution” and “Children of the Night” deal with the Holocaust, and “One Day in September” documents the murder of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches by Palestinian terrorists at the Olympic Games in Munich in 1972. “There are many other films of mine which you could derive some Jewish values from,” Cohn said, “It would not be farfetched to say that my Jewish identity is present in my art.”

Cohn’s first movie theater experience made a lasting impression. He remembered donning a suit borrowed from his brother to see “Goodbye Mister Chips” with his grandmother. “I always loved the magical experience of going into a theater, something I tried to express in my film ‘Two Bits,’ starring Al Pacino,” he said.

After graduating from high school, Cohn became a journalist and radio reporter covering soccer and ice hockey, but also the Middle East and Israel, publishing three books in German on the latter. From there he segued to scriptwriting, “but I soon realized that my passion was in developing other scripts and producing movies,” he said.

“A central theme of this film certainly is to live to our fullest till our last breath and to tell people we love that we love them.” — Arthur Cohn

He struck Oscar gold in 1962 with his first film, “The Sky Above and Mud Below,” and did it again with “American Dream” and “One Day in September.” 

“I am grateful for any recognition any of my films have received,” Cohn said. “It showed me that I was right — listening to my intuition rather than to well-meant advice from other people, which was the case in most of my films.” 

He spends a couple of months a year in Los Angeles, which he calls the “oxygen tank” for professional filmmakers. He has no plans to retire. “In German, there is a saying which I have adopted in my life: ‘Whoever rests, rusts,’ ” he said, revealing his next project, a film based on the 1971 book “Reunion” by Fred Uhlman set in Germany seven years before World War II. “I have already developed several script versions but I’m not totally satisfied with any of them yet,” he said. 

Now in L.A. for the Nov. 1 theatrical opening of “The Etruscan Smile” and the Israel Film Festival, Cohn eagerly awaits audience reactions. “I hope the American public will be emotionally moved and inspired by this film,” he said. “I have always tried to create human cinema, with no emphasis on sex, violence or special effects. Most of the films you see today you forget the moment they end. I hope my films in general and ‘The Etruscan Smile’ in particular will move the audience and make them think and feel about the important things in life.”

“The Etruscan Smile” opens at Laemmle’s Town Center 5 and Playhouse theaters on Nov. 1 and will screen on Nov. 13 as part of the Israel Film Festival. Visit the website for more information.