October 13, 2019

Will Oscar finally embrace Israel?

Some 85 countries — from Albania to Yemen — have entered a movie selection in pursuit of an Oscar for best foreign-language film. Over the score of years that this annual column has been printed, two questions by concerned Jewish readers persist:

Will Israel, which has placed 10 times among the five finalists but has never won, finally take home the golden statuette as the global champion?

And will the constantly predicted “Holocaust fatigue” spell an end to films about the Nazi era, 71 years after the end of the slaughter?

The selection process for best international picture is notoriously erratic, but, with fingers crossed, Israel’s entry “Sand Storm” seems to have a real fighting chance to end the country’s 52-year Academy Award drought.

As the first feature film from Israeli director-writer Elite Zexer, “Sand Storm,” entirely in Arabic, should appeal to the selection jury as a probing but sympathetic portrayal of a Bedouin family and community in the Negev, clashing between traditional ways and youthful rebellion. The movie, which Zexer developed over a 10-year period, has won a basketful of awards at international film festivals, and an Oscar would, of course, be the ultimate icing on the cake.

Entries from six other countries indicate that the Nazi era, the Holocaust and World War II have lost none of their fascination for filmmakers.

Austria’s “Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe” traces the life of the world-famous Jewish novelist (“The Royal Game”), who left Vienna and went into exile in 1934. Though feted abroad, he could not overcome the intellectual and spiritual separation from a war-ravaged Europe and, together with his wife, committed suicide in 1942 in Brazil.

At the center of the Russian entry “Paradise” is a Russian noblewoman, working as a fashion editor in Paris, who is thrown into a concentration camp for sheltering two Jewish children.

Denmark’s “Land of Mine” is surely one of the oddest World War II movies, in which the viewer’s sympathy is with a group of teenage German soldiers. At war’s end, they are forced to dig out and dismantle thousands of land mines buried by the Wehrmacht, which anticipated an Allied invasion on the beaches of Denmark’s western coast. The bad guys, surprisingly, are a sadistic Danish sergeant and his officer, who persist in their mission even as more and more of their young captives are blown up by the exploding land mines.

Norway presents a more traditional view of resistance to Nazi occupation in “The King’s Choice.” In April 1940, Nazi forces invaded Norway by sea and demanded that King Haakon VII capitulate. The monarch refused and, in exile, orchestrated his countrymen’s resistance to the German occupation.

“The Liberation of Skopje,” entered by Macedonia, recaptures the struggle for the nation’s capital against the German occupiers. The World War II drama is seen through the eyes of 8-year-old Zoran, who watches heartbroken when his best friend, a Jewish girl, is crammed into a box car heading for a death camp.

Harking back to the run-up to World War II, “Lost in Munich” is an absurdist Czech comedy, anchored in the 1938 Munich agreement, in which Britain and France pressured Czechoslovakia into giving up most of its strategic borderland to Hitler.

Should any of the cited six movies connected to the World War II era get the Oscar nod, it would follow in the footsteps of last year’s recipient, Hungary’s “Son of Saul,” set entirely among Jewish prisoners in a death camp. The preceding year, the winner was Poland’s “Ida,” the story of an aspiring nun about to take her vows, who discovers that her parents were Jews murdered in the Holocaust.

Switching time and location, Israel’s neighbors in the Middle East may not look kindly on the Jewish state, but their Oscar entries are focused elsewhere. Instead, they deal mainly with their internal disputes or find relief in such conventional movie themes as breaking into showbiz or young romance.

Jordan’s “3000 Nights” has the strongest anti-Israel slant in the depiction of a Palestinian woman having a baby in an Israeli prison.

However, the grimmest entry is Egypt’s “Clash,” centering on the 2013 Cairo riots, triggered by confrontations between the military government and the Muslim Brotherhood. The action takes place entirely inside a paddy wagon in which police have crammed a hapless cross section of the population.

The Palestinian entry, “The Idol,” eschews politics in favor of the true story of Mohammed Assaf, raised in Gaza, who fulfills his burning ambition to travel to Egypt to compete on the TV show “Arab Idol.” He wins and becomes a singing sensation and a symbol of hope for his fellow Palestinians.

One rarely thinks of Saudi Arabia in terms of romantic comedy, but “Barakah Meets Barakah” breaks the mold. In a country where unchaperoned contact between genders is prohibited, the attempts of a young civil servant to meet up with a girl takes on a Chaplinesque flavor. However, as in the case of Israel’s “Sand Storm,” on a deeper level, the Saudi picture explores the clash between traditional values and the modern world.

The Oscar ceremony will be broadcast Feb. 26.