Swiss producer Arthur Cohn has won an unprecedented six Oscars and he attributes much of his success to a piece of advice Shakespeare put into the mouth of Polonius, “This above all, to thine own self be true.”
Though speaking more colloquially, Cohn cited the rule as one of his guiding precepts while accepting the plaudits of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on May 19, during an evening devoted to his remarkable body of work.
The occasion marked the 40th anniversary screening of Cohn’s 1971 breakthrough success, “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis,” the story of an aristocratic Italian-Jewish family that falls victim to Mussolini’s anti-Semitic purge during World War II.
As Bruce Davis, the Academy’s executive director, noted, among more than 100 films about the Holocaust, “Garden” is one of the few that has maintained its power to this day.
Cohn credited the film’s enduring impact to the avoidance of graphic violence and the characters’ shadings, in which the “good” people displayed faults and the “bad” some virtues.
Drawing lessons from a 50-year career as producer, Cohn elaborated on his three guiding principles.
First, follow your own intuition, don’t listen to objections by others, be true to yourself. By way of illustration, after “Garden” was finished, the film was turned down by 31 distributors –- until it unexpectedly won an Oscar as the year’s best foreign film.
“If it hadn’t been for the Academy’s choice, no one would have ever seen the film,” Cohn noted.
His two other guidelines are “always use authentic settings” and “the audience must be able to identify with the actors.”
After being lauded as “the epitome of the independent producer,” Cohn, observing that there is no school for aspiring producers, shared some additional advice about his craft:
An independent producer must constantly look for “scripts so good, he just cannot pass them up. A good script is 60 percent of a film and cannot be ruined by a bad director, but the best director can’t save a bad script.”
Only slightly less in importance is the editing, which can give a floundering film its proper rhythm.
Gracing Cohn’s home in Basel, the city whose rabbi – Cohn’s grandfather – invited Theodor Herzl to hold the first Zionist Congress there, displays six Oscar statuettes.
Three are for his documentary features, “Sky Above and Mud Beneath,” “American Dream” and “One Day in September.” He garnered the three other Oscars as producer of best foreign film winners, “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis” (Italy), “Black and
White in Color” (Ivory Coast) and “Dangerous Moves” (Switzerland).
Cohn is currently in production on the German comedy “Russendisko,” based on the short story collection by Wladimar Kaminer.