While mainstream critics speculate endlessly on which movie, director or actress will waltz off with the Oscar and Golden Globe trophies, this occasional reviewer has always been more interested in checking out the annual foreign-language film contenders.
Part of this odd preoccupation lies in the chauvinist hope that the Israeli entry will finally win the top prize the night of the Academy Awards, this year on March 7.
But beyond that lies the belief that foreign movies reflect, to some extent, the concerns and attitudes of their respective home audiences, as well as the producers’ expectations of those filmgoers.
If this argument holds water, the question that follows, if one writes mainly for Jewish readers, is how many films deal with topics of particular Jewish interest and how directors handle such material.
For instance, the fact that, almost 65 years after the end of the Holocaust and the Nazi regime, producers keep coming up with new films about that era, surely indicates that savvy studio moneymen believe large audiences out there are ever ready to buy tickets for such pictures.
Furthermore, such movies help us track changing attitudes toward even so horrific and sensitive a subject as the Holocaust.
During the initial post-war years, victims, perpetrators and the popular media largely kept their silence. Once that silence was broken, documentaries and feature movies were based on actual happenings, exposing the horror in graphic details.
By the late 1990s, a new phase opened with the Italian film “Life is Beautiful,” which dared to introduce touches of humor into the genre. In just the last few months, we have seen another mutation with the American films “Defiance” and “Inglourious Basterds,” in which the Jew morphs from victim into avenger.
For the 82nd Academy Awards, 65 countries, from Albania to Vietnam, have submitted their top films. Using somewhat arbitrary criteria to define the boundaries of “Jewish interest,” this analysis found seven qualified submissions.
This year’s Czech and Slovak entries deal directly with the wartime fate of Jews in Nazi-occupied countries, while the films from Norway and the Netherlands focus on the resistance movements in their respective countries.
Slovenia, once part of Yugoslavia, uses a crime caper to examine what happens when the war’s resistance fighters take bloody revenge on the collaborators, and in turn are held accountable when the political wheel turns again.
Israel’s choice, “Ajami,” probes Arab-Arab and Arab-Jewish tensions in Jaffa, while the German entry goes back into the country’s past to explore the roots of the fascism to come.
Interestingly, the two films dealing directly with the persecution and murder of Jews under Nazi occupation come from the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic. Both countries, as a united Czechoslovakia, were under Communist rule during the immediate post-war decades, when the fate of Jews as the primary Nazi target was largely ignored.
The interplay and fate of mixed marriages under Hitler’s rule has intrigued filmmakers for some time.
In the earlier German movie “Rosenstrasse,” gentile wives sought to save their Jewish husbands, while in this year’s Czech entry, “Protektor,” it is the husband, Emil, who tries to protect his Jewish wife, Hana.
Hana was a popular movie star in the 1930s, and Emil a rising radio broadcaster. As the Nazi vise tightens, Emil becomes a collaborator and mouthpiece for the German occupiers to better shield his wife, but gradually the external and internal tensions erode the marriage.
Ironically, the drama includes a second “Protektor,” the official title of Nazi governor Reinhard Heydrich, whose assassination by Czech patriots brings the various conflicts to a climax.
Czech director Marek Najbrt evokes the mood and the moral choices of wartime, reflected in both the headlines and in the bedroom, with considerable fidelity.
The Slovak picture, “Broken Promise,” falls into the category of incredible Holocaust survival stories, this one based on the real life of Martin Friedmann-Petrasek, a survivor who is now a Tarzana resident.
Thanks mainly to his soccer playing skills, Martin survived a labor camp, selection for Auschwitz and then double pneumonia, to ultimately escape and join the resistance.
As in other recent European films, director Jiri Chlumsky graphically shows the vicious anti-Semitism of the local population and among Soviet partisans, slightly balanced by a courageous Catholic priest.
The film’s main strength lies in the realistic performance by Samo Spizak in the role of Martin.
Two more conventional war dramas are Norway’s “Max Manus” and Holland’s “Winter in Wartime.”
Manus, played by Aksel Hennie, was a legendary Norwegian resistance fighter whose daring sabotage exploits against the German occupiers gave heart to his countrymen and now makes for a slam-bang action picture.
However, the movie does not minimize the emotional toll of war on Manus, who saw most of his comrades die by execution or torture.
Co-producer John M. Jacobsen noted in a phone interview that there has been a strong revival of interest in World War II among young Norwegians, and the interest is apparently shared in other countries. “Manus” has been sold to 35 countries, and the first customer was China.
Holland’s “Winter in Wartime” combines storylines of a young boy who must suddenly shoulder adult responsibilities, relations between father and son, and bravery and betrayal within one Dutch family.
Set in a Dutch village during the final, bitterly cold winter months of World War II, 14-year-old Michiel discovers a wounded British pilot hiding in the forest and makes it his mission to save the aviator and help him escape.
The beautifully photographed film, directed by Martin Koolhoven, brings home the toll of war, even on its “heroes” and especially on the civilian population.
Slovenia’s “Landscape No. 2” moves history’s timeline to the weeks following liberation of the then-Yugoslav Republic, when a Communist general orders the mass shooting of all Nazi collaborators.
Decades later, the killing spree is denounced by a new government, a small-time thief accidentally discovers incriminating evidence against the general, and the chase is on.
“Landscape No. 2” is of some political interest, but so brutal as to turn off all but the most devoted aficionados of slasher films.
“Ajami,” the Israeli entry, has been extensively discussed in this newspaper (“Parallel Lives in Urban Israel,” Dec. 4). The picture again proves the willingness of Israeli filmmakers, and of the Israeli government that subsidizes them, to honestly probe some of the most painful problems facing the country — in this case, relations between its Jewish and Arab citizens.
Germany’s “The White Ribbon” is a movie easier to admire for its technical competence than to embrace.
Set in a picture-perfect German village shortly before the outbreak of World War I, director Michael Haneke dispassionately probes beneath the peaceful surface to reveal malice, child abuse, religious oppression, class warfare, sexual repression and a variety of other sins.
The film is somewhat cold; Variety called it “medicinal,” but critics have almost universally clasped it to their collective bosom. Their consensus is that in the village’s authoritarian family life and obedience to authority lay the seeds that sprouted into Nazism 20 years later.
“White Ribbon” raises many questions and gives few answers, but appears to be one of the current frontrunners for foreign-language Oscar honors. The German movie is among the five Golden Globe nominees and was the top pick of the New York Film Critics Circle.
The other four Golden Globe foreign picture nominees are France’s “A Prophet,” Italy’s “Baaria,” Spain’s “Broken Embraces” and Chile’s “The Maid.”
Admirers of foreign pictures and fluent subtitle readers can view all five Golden Globe nominees in a series of Jan. 11-15 screenings, followed by a Jan. 16 seminar featuring the films’ directors. The venues are the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood and the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica. For details, call (323) 466-FILM.
Various Laemmle theaters throughout the city also will show some of the foreign film contenders, including “White Ribbon” opening Jan. 8, and “A Prophet” on Feb. 26. Israel’s entry, “Ajami,” opens Feb. 12. For more information, visit laemmle.com.
One frequent past controversy has focused on how to designate the origin of entries from one conflicted place — Palestine? Palestinian Authority? Palestinian Territories? The problem has been at least temporarily put on the back burner, since no Palestinian film was submitted this year.