January 6, 2005
Foreign Oscar Hope High in Nom Run-up
When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announces its Oscar finalists on Jan. 25, millions of Americans will be tuning in to learn who has been nominated for best actor, actress, director and picture.
But in 49 countries around the globe, from Afghanistan to Venezuela, local film buffs will wait anxiously to find out whether their country's entry has made the cut by placing among the five finalists.
For most foreign movies, an Oscar nominations offers the best chance of attracting an American distributor for screenings in commercial U.S. theaters.
This year, four entries touch closely on the Jewish experience. They are Germany's "Downfall," Argentina's "Lost Embrace," the Palestinian Authority's "The Olive Harvest" and Israel's "Campfire."
In face-to-face interviews, three directors and one actor commented on the making of the films.
"Downfall" recreates the last 10 days of Adolf Hitler and, for an instant, when Swiss actor Bruno Ganz makes his entrance, it feels as if the Führer himself has been reincarnated, such is the resemblance between the two men.
But this is not the ranting, strutting Hitler of 1,000 newsreels and photos. This is a cornered man, holed up in his elaborate Berlin bunker, with sunken eyes and cheeks, trying to hide his uncontrollably shaking hand behind his back.
In the streets above the bunker, Soviet troops, fighting the last die-hard Nazis and Hitler Youth, are reducing the capital city to rubble, block by block.
It is April 20, 1945, Hitler's 56th birthday, and in a ghastly imitation of a jolly party, his still-loyal followers lift their champagne glasses in a toast.
The mood in the bunker wavers between frenetic fantasy and desperate reality. One moment, Hitler orders his generals to move nonexistent divisions to counterattack the Russian enemy. An hour later, he calmly discusses with his doctor the surest way to blow out his brains.
There are wild drunken parties among the bodyguards, with Eva Braun, Hitler's mistress, jitterbugging on a table, counterpoised to a somber Hitler staring at the portrait of his idol, Frederick the Great of Prussia.
Leaders of the short-lived "Thousand Year Reich" drop by to pay their respects or farewells. Dreaded SS chief Heinrich Himmler swears undying fealty to the Führer and then consults an aide whether on meeting Allied commander Dwight Eisenhower for imaginary negotiations he should greet the American general with a Nazi salute or a handshake.
None is more fanatical than Magda Goebbels, wife of propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. She brings her six children to the bunker and, declaring that life is not worth living without National Socialism, methodically poisons them one by one.
In appreciation, Hitler confers his own swastika lapel pin on her and she declares herself the happiest woman in all of Germany.
Hitler's paranoid anti-Semitism is unshaken to the end, and he takes pride that "I have cleansed Germany of the Jewish poison."
He dictates his political testament to his secretary, concluding that "We owe all our problems to international Jewry."
While Hitler hates and fears the Jews, he now has nothing but contempt for his Aryan master race. "I won't shed a tear for the German people," he declares, "They are to blame [for the defeat]."
Yet, the Hitler of the film is not a lunatic. He knows the fate in store for him if he is caught by the Russians, and he can carry on a fairly normal conversation with Albert Speer, his favorite architect.
"Hitler would not have achieved such power if within his crazy concept there hadn't been a rational person," said Ganz, Hitler's film persona.
Interspersed in "Downfall's" Wagnerian Twilight of the Gods are small homey touches. In gratitude to the loyal Eva Braun, he marries her in a brief, bureaucratic ceremony, in which both affirm their pure Aryan descent.
Just before the couple retires to commit suicide, Hitler formally thanks the cook for their last, delicious, lunch. And to his young secretary, Traudl Junge, on whose recollection of the last days much of the film is based, he remains mainly a kindly father figure.
Such "normal" touches in a man who laid Europe waste have aroused fears and criticism that the film "humanizes" Hitler, especially among the post-war generations.
Ganz said he had no such concern when he accepted the role.
"The film clearly explains that Hitler was responsible for the deaths of 50 million people, including 6 million Jews, and even young people know of his murderous deeds."
But Ganz wrestled with himself on whether to play Hitler for other reasons.
"I've been given more to playing thoughtful, even melancholy, characters, such as Hamlet and Faust," the 63-year-old actor said.
"My son and friends advised me not to accept the role. They worried that it would affect me as a human being and that thereafter I would be known just as the man who played Hitler."
After considerable reading and thinking, Ganz concluded that playing the part was just too big a challenge to pass up, despite the risks.
"Besides everything else, Hitler was an actor who fed off his audience and knew how to play a crowd," Ganz said. "As an actor myself, I finally told myself, 'I know how to get into that man.'"
If the Nazi era has been endlessly researched and reported, little is known, outside of South America, of Jewish life in Argentina, except when terrorists or vandals strike at the community.
Yet Argentina has the has the seventh-largest Jewish community in the world, predominantly living in Buenos Aires, and it is a welcome sign that the Argentine film industry chose "Lost Embrace" ("El Abrazo Partido") as the country's entry in the Oscar stakes.
Written and directed by Daniel Burman, the grandson of Polish Jewish immigrants, the film is set in the Once neighborhood of downtown Buenos Aires.
At one time an all-Jewish enclave, Once, like similar semi-ghettos in New York and Los Angeles some decades ago, is gradually changing with the influx of other minorities and newer immigrants.
Burman, still only 31, grew up in Once and among the dozen films he has directed or produced, has twice before visited the old neighborhood in "Seven Days in Once" and "Waiting for the Messiah."
"Lost Embrace" is set in a rundown shopping mall, where young Ariel (Daniel Hendler) helps his mother Sonia (Adriana Aizenberg) in her lingerie shop, when he isn't indulging in some quick sex with the blonde at the Internet hangout or observing the noisy Italian and quiet Korean storekeepers and their families.
Absent is the father, who disappeared one day in 1973 to fight in Israel's Yom Kippur War, for reasons Ariel's mother and grandmother refuse to discuss.
In quick-changing segments, we get other glimpses of Jewish life. Mother Sonia dances in an amateur show at the local Teatro Hebraica; the grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, unexpectedly sings an old Yiddish tune; and the neighborhood rabbi announces that he is leaving for Miami.
Life in Once has a certain multiethnic warmth, but what the rather aimless Ariel wants is to get away. Like many other young men in changing and uncertain Argentina, he looks for his ancestral roots and wants to move to Europe.
In the end, when his father returns, Ariel finally gets the answers he's been seeking and the paternal embrace he has been yearning for.
The problem of "constructing an identity" has long obsessed Burman and he says that "Lost Embrace" embodies that search in Ariel's seemingly casual daily experiences.
Yet Burman, both of whose parents are lawyers, apparently doesn't share Ariel's problem. Sounding like many of his contemporaries in the United States, he says, "I have no hang-ups about my Jewish identity, but it is part of my background."
Similar to many descendants of Lower East Side residents in New York, or the Fairfax district in Los Angeles, Burman has moved away from Once, has married a non-Jewish woman, but still draws on the Jewish experiences of his youth for creative sustenance.
'The Olive Harvest'
Last year, there were raised eyebrows and scattered protests, when, under the Academy's liberal rules, the country of "Palestine" entered the movie "Divine Intervention" for foreign-language film Oscar honors.
No such objection has been raised to "The Olive Harvest," the current Palestinian candidate and an unorthodox production in many ways.
For one, director-writer Hanna Latif Elias, an Israeli Arab and graduate of the Hebrew University and UCLA, shot the film, in the midst of the intifada, with an all-Arab cast and an all-Jewish Israeli crew.
For another, the picture's core is a love triangle, and although the Israeli-Palestinian conflict looms threateningly in the background, more tension is produced by generational and sibling rivalries among the inhabitants of a rural Arab village in the West Bank.
The villagers earn their livelihood by harvesting olive trees planted in terraces along the gently rolling hills, among them family patriarch Muhamad, his wife Samiah, and their daughter, the beautiful Raeda.
As the film opens, Raeda is scattering rose petals to welcome the return of her childhood friend, Mazen. He has just been released after 15 years in an Israeli prison for setting fire to a new settlement encroaching on the olive groves.
During Mazen's absence, his younger brother, Taher, has been courting Raeda, but their engagement remains a secret in deference to the tradition that a younger brother cannot marry before the older one.
Given the slow, indirect and nonphysical courting procedures in the village, it takes some time before the rivalry between the brothers breaks out into the open.
The brothers also differ in their political outlook. The impetuous, hot-headed Taher works for the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, tasked with warning of any new Israeli settlement activity.
In contrast to Taher's militancy, the more sensitive and poetic older brother urges an end to the cycle of violence between Jews and Arabs.
Raeda's dying father, exercising his absolute paternal authority on the ambivalent Raeda, chooses for her husband the brother most likely to remain in the village and care for the land.
As the wedding party assembles, the enraged losing brother torches a massive, 2,000-year-old tree, which symbolizes the villagers' connectedness to the land.
"Olive Harvest" is in many ways, a beautiful film, both in the vistas of the biblical landscape and in the sensitive depiction of relationships between husband and wife, parents and daughter, sister and sister, and between the young lovers.
The excellent cast includes veteran actor Muhamad Bacri as the father; Raeda Adon, a Palestinian Julia Roberts, as his daughter; Mazen Saade as the older brother; and Taher Najeeb as the younger one.
Director Elias drew on his own childhood, growing up in an Arab village in the Galilee, for the atmosphere and social norms of the film's farmers.
"My parents still live in my birthplace and the social life, the relationship between men and women, is the same as it has been for generations," he said.
The movie has been screened before Jewish audiences in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and Arab audiences in Ramallah, Cairo and Dubai. Reactions have been generally favorable, but with one notable difference.
"The Jewish audiences questioned why the only Israelis shown were rude soldiers at checkpoints, while the Arab viewers complained that there wasn't enough about Palestinian suffering," Elias said.
One angry patron in Cairo confronted Elias about using an Israeli crew for the film, to which Elias responded that the highly professional Israelis made him look good.
Yet, the realities of Israeli-Palestinian hostility were never completely absent from Elias' mind.
"When we were shooting in Ramallah, we needed guards to protect the Israeli crew, and when we filmed at a checkpoint, we had to protect the Arab actors," he said. A projected scene of a confrontation between settlers and villagers was scuttled for fear of physical violence.
However, Elias sees it as a promising omen that during the filming a romance ignited between an Israeli makeup woman and a Palestinian actor.
"She supported settlements, he didn't accept Israel's existence, but once they got to know each other, they realized that the 'other' was also a human being," Elias said.
Financing for the $1 million film came from producer Kamran Elahian, a Silicon Valley-based Iranian American venture capitalist, who said that he has invested some $10 million in Israel's high-tech industry.
"I liked the idea of a film that portrayed Palestinians as normal persons, instead of suicide bombers," Elahian said.
In "Campfire," American-born Israeli director Joseph Cedar continues his unblinking exploration into the mindset of the religious Zionists who form the backbone of the settlers' movement in the West Bank and Gaza.
Cedar, himself an Orthodox Jew who grew up in the same environment as the film's protagonists, earlier looked at the religious right in the acclaimed "Time of Favor."
In "Campfire," which dominated the Israel Oscar awards, the central character is Rachel (Michaela Eshet), an attractive 42-year-old widow with two teenage daughters.
A year after her husband's death, Rachel is desperate for a communal support network and wants to join the founding group of a future religious settlement in the Samaria region of the West Bank.
Ideologically in tune with the movement, Rachel is taken aback when settler leader Motke doubts that as a single woman she will be acceptable, unless she remarries.
Toward that end, Motke's wife casts about for suitable candidates. One is a cantor-singer (veteran musical star Yehoram Gaon), the other a friendly 50-year-old bus driver (Moshe Ivgy), who can't seem to hook up in a lasting relationship with a woman.
Meanwhile, Tami, Rachel's 15-year-old daughter, hangs out with her friends at B'nai Akiva, the religious Zionist youth movement. Amidst the singing and dancing, Tami is sexually molested by some of her nastier comrades at a Lag B'Omer bon fire and then publicly slandered.
What has made "Campfire" such a popular and critical success in Israel is that Cedar, as screenwriter and director, has made his characters no mere ideological mouthpieces, but fallible and struggling human beings.
After "Time of Favor" and "Campfire," many of Cedar's former friends from the settlements and B'nai Akiva are now among his more vocal critics, but he denies that his movies are anti-religious.
"All the characters in 'Campfire' are religious, some are 'good' and some are 'bad.' But the critics just see the 'bad' ones," he said.
The Oscars will air live on Feb. 27, at 5 p.m. on ABC. For more information, visit www.oscars.com.