February 27, 2020

Holocaust Themes in Oscars’ Best International Feature Film Race

“The Painted Bird”

Before its first-round elimination in the Academy Awards’ best international  feature film (formerly best foreign language film), the hotly disputed question at my dinner table was whether Switzerland’s “Wolkenbruch’s Wondrous Journey Into the Arms of a Shiksa” was likely to beat out Greece’s “When Tomatoes Met Wagner” or Honduras’ “Blood, Passion or Coffee.” 

None of the three films made the cut. Nor did Israel’s entry, “Incitement,” which probed the 1995 assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

I became interested in the academy’s foreign films some 30 years ago while trying to find an answer to the question: With all horrors in the world, and given the general short memory of the masses and media, why do novelists, researchers and filmmakers return to the topic of the Holocaust year after year?

In numerous interviews with Jewish film producers and directors, my lead question was, “Assuming Albanians or Swedes, instead of Jews, had founded Hollywood and continued to make many of the creative decisions, would we still get such Holocaust-centered movies as ‘Schindler’s List,’ rather than epics about the Vikings or the Balkan wars?”

The answer always was “yes.” Holocaust pictures would be made, just as in the olden days, Hollywood churned out “cowboys versus Indians” sagas. To test the question and answers on a global scale, I started to analyze films submitted to the academy from countries around the world.

The Journal reached out to three noted experts for their perspectives on filmmakers’ focus on the Holocaust.

Deborah Lipstadt of Emory University in Atlanta is the Holocaust historian known for winning her 1996 court case against London Holocaust denier David Irving, who sued her for libel. Lipstadt responded in an email: “I am not surprised by this fascination with the most extensive genocide in history; one committed by a country that was considered to be the most advanced, cultured and educationally accomplished country. It happened in the heart of a continent that considers itself to be enlightened. The Germans did not act alone. From France to Latvia, the Netherlands to Norway, they had accomplices. They numbered in the hundreds of thousands. As a result of this genocide, one out of every three Jews on the face of the Earth was murdered. Is there any wonder that creative people are perplexed by this unprecedented phenomenon?”

Loyola Marymount Jewish and Holocaust Studies professor Holli Levitsky wrote: 

“The strongest case why the memory of the Holocaust increases rather than diminishes in power over time is that each generation re-witnesses the events and thus, reproduces the trauma. The further we get away from the event itself, the more generations feel its effect — and most strongly by those who illuminate history and culture for its citizens, such as novelists, researchers and filmmakers.”

Emeritus professor John K. Roth, founding director of the Center for the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights at Claremont McKenna College wrote: 

“For a time, it was hoped that calling attention to the Holocaust might curb, if not eliminate, anti-Semitism; keep genocide at bay and raise the ethical quality of human life … these assumptions are proving too optimistic in retrospect …. So what can calling attention to the Holocaust do?”

“The Holocaust, as Michael Berenbaum said, serves as a 

negative absolute … and shows how much truth and 

right matter. It is for these fundamental ethical reasons that scholars, novelists and filmmakers return again and again to the Holocaust.” — John K. Roth 

He added, “The Holocaust, as [Holocaust scholar] Michael Berenbaum said, serves as a negative absolute … and shows how much truth and right matter. It is for these fundamental ethical reasons that scholars, novelists and filmmakers return again and again to the Holocaust, especially when times are fraught …. Attention to the Holocaust is an act of resistance; it works in spite of forces that wreck human flourishing.”

Among the 10 semifinalists in this year’s best international feature film category, two have the Holocaust as its main theme.

“The Painted Bird,” directed by Vaclav Marhoul and adapted from the novel of the same title by Jerzy Kosinski, the Czech Republic’s submission is about an unnamed Jewish boy who goes through a litany of horrors. His parents send him to relatives in Eastern Europe to avoid anti-Semitic persecution. The boy’s aunt suddenly dies, so he has to fend for himself in a wild, dangerous and hostile world.

Hungary’s entry was “Those Who Remained,” about the romance between two concentration camp survivors: a middle-aged doctor and a 19-year-old Jewish teen. In 2015, Hungary won the award in this category for “Son of Saul,” set in a death camp.

Worth noting are some of the films with Jewish content that were eliminated in the first round, including Latvia’s “The Mover,” in which a Latvian dockworker saves 60 Jews during the German occupation, with the help of his family and friends.

Luxembourg submitted “Tel Aviv on Fire,” and despite the ominous title, the film is a comedy about a Palestinian worker who receives a promotion thanks to an Israeli checkpoint guard.

Lebanon’s entry is “1982,” about that year’s war with Israel. However, the emphasis is on director Oualid Mouaness’ recollection of a boyhood crush on his teacher as Israeli troops approach Beirut.

It’s Ireland’s entry that chastises Israel in the documentary “Gaza.” In a series
of individual segments, the film likens life in the Gaza Strip to existing in “a big,
open prison.”