January 16, 2019

Two Holocaust movies among top Oscar contenders

Two movies on the Holocaust and its aftermath have made the cut to compete for best foreign-language film among entries from 80 countries vying for Oscar honors, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced on Dec. 17.

Both entries, “Son of Saul” and “Labyrinth of Lies,” are critics’ favorites to garner an Academy Award, indicating once again that 70 years after its end, the Shoah retains its grip on the minds and souls of international filmmakers.

Actor Alexander Fehling as Johann Radmann in “Labyrinth of Lies.”

Last year, the foreign-language Oscar went to the Polish movie “Ida,” which followed the path of a devout young woman raised in a convent and about to take her vows as a nun. Suddenly, she learns that her parents were Jews who perished in the Holocaust, so she sets out to rediscover her roots.

In Hungary’s “Son of Saul,” which won the Grand Prix at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Saul Auslander is a member of the Sonderkommando at Auschwitz-Birkenau, forced to cremate the bodies of fellow prisoners gassed by the SS. As he goes about his ghastly task, he thinks he recognizes one of the victims, who unexpectedly survives for a few minutes, as that of his son.

As the Sonderkommando men plan a rebellion, Saul vows that he will save the child’s corpse from the flames and find a rabbi to say Kaddish at a proper burial.

Saul is portrayed by Geza Rohrig, born in Budapest and founder of an underground punk band during Communist rule. Moving to New York, he studied at a Chassidic yeshiva and graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary.

“Labyrinth of Lies,” submitted by Germany, is set in the post-war 1950s, a time when most Germans preferred to deny or ignore the Holocaust. The film focuses on a young German prosecutor determined to bring the Nazis who ran Auschwitz to trial before a German court.

In historical retrospect, the subsequent trial is seen as a turning point in forcing Germans to face the reality of the Holocaust.

Both the Israeli submission, “Baba Joon,” and the Palestinian film “The Wanted 18,” failed to make the cut, leaving Jordan’s “Theeb,” set during World War I when the Ottoman Empire ruled the region, as the only Middle Eastern entry to place among the final nine.

Israel’s record in making the prestigious short list of the five finalists has been uneven, with bursts of recognition in some decades alternating with long dry spells.

In the first entry by the young Israeli film industry in 1965, “Sallah” was surprisingly among the five finalists, followed by four more Israeli nominees in the 1970s, and an additional four between 2007 and 2011.

Since then, no Israeli movie has made it to the final short list and none has ever won the coveted Oscar.

Rounding out the list of nine semi-finalists this year are:

Belgium: “The Brand New Testament,” an irreverent satire in which everything you read in the Bible turns out to be wrong.

Colombia: “Embrace of the Serpent” in which two scientists and an Amazon shaman search for a rare sacred plant.

Denmark: “A War” – A soldier serves in Afghanistan and the impact on his family at home.

Finland: “The Fencer” — A fencing instructor evades the Soviet secret police.

France: “Mustang” – The alternately joyful and repressed lives of five orphaned sisters growing up in a Turkish village.

Ireland:  “Viva” – Set in a Havana nightclub, a gay son struggles against his macho father.

The list of the current nine contenders will be winnowed down to five, with the remaining nominees announced Jan. 14. The glamorous award ceremony is on Feb. 28 and will be televised to more than 225 countries and territories across the globe.