Jewish Journal


January 5, 2011

Holocaust era ignored by 2011 Oscar contenders


A scene from Israel’s entry to the 2010 Oscars, “The Human Resources Manager.”

A scene from Israel’s entry to the 2010 Oscars, “The Human Resources Manager.”

In the half century that this reporter has been writing about Hollywood, the Oscars and domestic and foreign films, not a year has gone by without prominent movies and documentaries focusing on the Holocaust, the Nazi era or World War II.

And with each roundup, critics have regularly announced the end of this particular genre, only to be proven wrong the following year.

Well, 2010 has passed, contenders for the 2011 Academy Awards are polishing their spontaneous acceptance remarks, but not a single entry anywhere deals with the historic horror of the 1930s and 1940s.

A mere year ago, Jewish GIs were wiping out Hitler and his minions in “Inglourious Basterds,” and the year before we fed on German guilt and anti-Nazi resistance in “The Reader,” “Defiance” and “Valkyrie.”

One year’s film output does not necessarily mark a trend. Still, it may be even more significant that among the 65 submitted foreign-language films, which often reflect the present moods and concerns of their respective countries, none touches on the Holocaust era.

By contrast, a year ago, films from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Norway, Slovenia and Holland centered on World War II, and, in most instances, on the fate of the country’s Jews under German occupation.

Checking the current list of foreign entries, ranging from Albania to Venezuela, many deal instead with such timeless favorites as romance, comedy, teenage agonies, sports and so forth.

And while others touch on themes of war, oppression and resistance, the time frame has shifted from World War II to the postwar communists and other dictatorships, and to recent genocides.

Examples are Belgium’s “Illegal,” about an undocumented foreign worker; Bulgaria’s “Eastern Plays,” about a neo-Nazi gang; Croatia’s “The Blacks,” about a fascist death squad in the Bosnian fighting; and Iran’s “Farewell Baghdad,” about the first U.S. war in Iraq.

Also, Poland’s “All That I Love,” set against the 1980s background of the Solidarity movement; and South Africa’s “Life, Above All,” which examines AIDS, alcoholism and child prostitution in a rural area. The Soviet regime’s oppression of artists is the theme of “The Concert,” a French movie listed among the Golden Globes’ five foreign film finalists (though not an Oscar candidate).

In the early 1980s, Andrei Filipov (Alexei Guskov), the conductor of the renowned Bolshoi Orchestra, was summarily fired during an anti-Semitic purge by the Kremlin for his refusal to fire his Jewish musicians. Jewish Romanian director Radu Mihaileanu tells the story with much humor and unexpected twists, with glamour provided by Melanie Laurent, the fierce Jewish heroine of “Inglourious Basterds.”

(The American Cinematheque and Hollywood Foreign Press Association will screen “The Concert” on Jan. 12 at 7:30 p.m. at Santa Monica’s Aero Theatre.)

Israel’s entry this year to the Oscar competition is “The Human Resources Manager,” which the Israeli/Jewish rooting section carrying the blue-and-white banner hopes might finally add an Oscar to its Olympic gold medal.

After a 23-year drought, during which no Israeli film came close enough to make the five finalists list, the greatly improved Tel Aviv-based film industry has dramatically picked up its stride.

In each of the last three years, the Israeli entry placed among the final five short list, with “Ajami,” about Arab-Jewish tensions in Jaffa, in 2010, “Waltz With Bashir” in 2009, and “Beaufort” in 2008.

The latter two dealt with the wars in Lebanon, and “Waltz,” a highly original animated feature and Golden Globe winner, seemed so close to the top prize that the corks were almost halfway out of the champagne bottles.

“The Human Resources Manager” is based on A.B. Yehoshua’s novel “A Woman in Jerusalem,” centered around an otherwise unnamed title character (played by Mark Ivanir). It tells the story of his transformation from detached bureaucrat in the country’s largest industrial bakery to an involved human being, as he accompanies the body of an employee, a Christian foreign worker killed in a suicide bombing, to her native Romanian village for burial.

Under Eran Riklis’ direction, the manager represents a kind of everyman, forced to face a dissolving marriage, incompetent Israeli and Romanian officials, and paralyzing snowstorms.

During a visit to Los Angeles by Riklis and Ivanir, the director summarized his film as “basically the story of a man who travels with death in order to rediscover his own life.”

On another level, the film asks, “How do we treat the ger, the stranger in our midst? Do we show respect for our foreign workers?” Riklis added.

“Resources Manager” was panned by Variety, the show-business journal, but has otherwise been well received. The Los Angeles Times listed the film among the front-runners for an Oscar nomination.

In any case, the Israeli entry will face some heavy competition, particularly from Mexico’s “Biutiful,” France’s “Of Gods and Men,” Russia’s “The Edge” and Thailand’s “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.”

Israel has a strong contender in the documentary features category with “Precious Life,” which the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has short-listed among the 15 semi-finalists.

Directed by newsman Shlomi Eldar, the camera follows a 1-year old “bubble baby” in Gaza who was born with a severe autoimmune deficiency and can only be saved by a matching bone marrow transplant at an Israeli hospital.

While the fighting rages in Gaza, Eldar manages to get the boy to Tel Hashomer hospital, receives a $55,000 donation from an anonymous Israeli to cover medical expenses, and stands by Raida, the boy’s mother, during her ordeal.

What would be a heartwarming tale of generosity and friendship across the Israeli-Palestinian divide gets an ominous twist when Raida expresses the hope that if her son survives, she hopes that he will grow up to be a “martyr” and help “liberate” Jerusalem.

The humanistic side of the Jewish state gets another uplift in “Strangers No More,” which has been included among the eight finalists in the documentary short subjects category.

Directed by American filmmakers Kirk Simon and Karen Goodman, the film is set in the Bialik-Rogozin School in impoverished, crime-ridden south Tel Aviv.

The school educates, and integrates, students from 48 countries, including Sudan, the Philippines, Ukraine and points in between, many the children of foreign workers.

In barely 40 minutes, the documentary takes a loving look at the difficulties and triumphs of the school and its devoted teachers, among whose supporters are The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the locally based Jewish World Watch.

At the Oscar nominations on Jan. 25 and the glamour-drenched awards ceremony on Feb. 27, Jewish talent is expected to be in strong contention among best picture, actor and director hopefuls, and in some unexpected places among foreign filmmakers.

Youthful director Feo Aladag, whose first feature film was chosen as Germany’s Oscar entry, traces her Jewishness through a long line of maternal ancestors. Among them was her great-grandmother, who committed suicide in 1940 after the Nazi takeover of Austria.

The film’s English title is “When We Leave,” although the German title, “Die Fremde,” which can mean either “abroad” or “the foreign woman,” is more meaningful.

At the center of the film is a young Turkish mother working in Germany who is ostracized by her family when she leaves her abusive husband and strikes out independently. The film will open Jan. 28 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills.

Italy’s entry, “La Prima Cosa Bella” (“The First Beautiful Thing”), a lively family drama, was co-produced by Marco Cohen and Benedetto Habib, two Italian Jews based in Milan.

Habib left his native Tripoli with his parents in 1967, when the Six-Day War triggered riots and pogroms in Libya. During the German occupation of the country in World War II, his father was deported to Bergen-Belsen but survived.

Cohen attended Hebrew school in Milan, which has a mixed community of 7,000 Jews, including many from Lebanon, Libya, Syria and Iran.

He said the first time he visited Los Angeles, he was in shock “to see how many Jews were in Hollywood.”

But back home, his name and religion actually may have been an advantage. When “La Prima Cosa Bella” was picked as his country’s Oscar entry, Cohen said that some colleagues suggested to him, “maybe you’ll have more pull in Hollywood because you’re Jewish.”

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