Does Oscar favor Shoah films?

BY CLIFF FROEHLICH, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

When the Academy Award nominations were announced on Jan. 22, Kate Winslet’s unexpected nomination for the Holocaust-themed The Reader — rather than for the much-touted Revolutionary Road — seemed a weird validation of an observation that the actress made in Ricky Gervais’ HBO comedy series Extras in 2005.

Starring as a nun in a Holocaust film, Winslet — who gamely plays a wildly exaggerated version of herself — pauses during a shooting break to chat with two extras in the movie. Gervais’ Andy Millman obsequiously tells Winslet, “I would just like to say that I think you doing this is so commendable, using your profile to keep the message alive about the Holocaust.” The actress, eyes rolling, offers this outrageous reply: “My God, I’m not doing it for that. I don’t think we really need another film about the Holocaust, do we? I mean, how many have there been, you know? We get it. It was grim. Move on. No, I’m doing it because I’ve noticed that if you do a film about the Holocaust — guaranteed an Oscar! I’ve been nominated four times. Never won. The whole world is going, ‘Why hasn’t Winslet won one?’ … That’s it. That’s why I’m doing it. ‘Schindler’s bloody List,’ The Pianist – Oscars comin’ out of their a–.” The faux-Winslet is right: The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences does frequently nominate and bestow Oscars on Holocaust films and their stars. The two movies she cites provide real proof of her assertion: Schindler’s List (1993) received 12 nominations and won seven awards, including Best Picture, and The Pianist (2002) garnered seven nods and three wins, including Best Actor for Adrien Brody.

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Another half-dozen films could have been added to Winslet’s examples, beginning with The Diary of Anne Frank (1959), which earned Shelley Winters an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress and received seven additional nominations. Winslet could have also entered these items into evidence:

* Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), a Best Picture nominee that featured a winning Best Actor performance by Maximilian Schell.

* The Pawnbroker (1964), a taboo-challenging work that starred Best Actor nominee Rod Steiger as a troubled Holocaust survivor.

* Sophie’s Choice (1982), an adaptation of William Styron’s National Book Award-winning novel that won Meryl Streep her (as yet) only Oscar as Best Actress and received four other nominations.

* Enemies: A Love Story (1989), an unjustly neglected gem by Paul Mazursky, adapted from an Isaac Bashevis Singer novel, that secured nominations as Best Supporting Actress for both Anjelica Huston and Lena Olin.

* Life Is Beautiful (1997), a vastly over-praised Best Picture nominee that won a baffling three Oscars, including Best Actor and Best Foreign-Language Film, for its bizarrely uplifting, borderline-offensive take on the concentration-camp experience.

Broad scope and reach of the Holocaust

If the definition of Holocaust film is stretched to include works that make significant reference to the dire threat of anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany, then Cabaret (1972) would also qualify. Nominated for 10 awards, including Best Picture, the pitch-black musical won Liza Minnelli an Oscar as Best Actress.

Widening the scope still further, the Academy has been even more generous to Holocaust-related foreign films and documentaries, as the accompanying sidebar attests. Like Cabaret or even Sophie’s Choice — Sophie is a Polish-Catholic survivor of Auschwitz – some of these films don’t deal exclusively with Jewish issues, but all address, to varying degrees, the Holocaust, the Nazi concentration-camp system or anti-Semitism.

Given that background, the egg-on-their-face experts who expressed such slack-jawed surprise at The Reader’s five nominations — for motion picture, actress, director, adapted screenplay and cinematography – perhaps needed a refresher course in Oscar history.

Holocaust films, of course, are by no means guaranteed multiple nominations. Defiance, for example — despite its inspiring story of Jewish resistance — was largely ignored by the Academy, receiving only a single citation for score. The Reader, however, also boasted an impressive Academy Award pedigree in oft-nominated actress Winslet, director Stephen Daldry (all three of his films have now received Oscar nods) and executive producer Harvey Weinstein (renowned for his relentless and generally successful award campaigns).

Still, however glittering the credentials of the filmmakers, the weighty seriousness of The Reader’s subject surely exerted substantial influence over Academy voters, effectively offsetting the disparaging criticism of such reviewers as The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane, who declared it indigestible “cinematic roughage,” and the Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips, who dismissed it as “solemn erotic kitsch.”

Hollywood’s Jewish roots

Oscar’s long-term fascination with Holocaust films is no doubt partially explained by Hollywood’s deep Jewish roots. As Neal Gabler recounts in An Empire of Their Own, the Hollywood studio system was largely founded by immigrant Jews, and their influence persists even in today’s increasingly diverse entertainment industry.

How could the Academy’s Jewish voters not respond to films that explore an event as fraught with personal relevance and cultural, political and historical import as the Holocaust?

But the Academy is not an exclusively Jewish institution, and strong identification — both emotional and intellectual — with the protagonists of Holocaust films is scarcely limited to its Jewish membership. Any thinking, feeling person, regardless of religion or ethnicity, can’t help but respond to stories of the Holocaust. Although films on the subject clearly resonate with particular power among Jews, no one can remain unmoved unless inured by an irrational hatred.

Holocaust films also exert a powerful pull on the Academy because they deal in such primal issues — of survival, of family, of faith, of national and ethnic identity, of morality, of individual and collective guilt, of selfless heroism — and yet allow for immense complexity. Although in its broadest outlines, the Holocaust story offers a stark contrast between good and evil — a dichotomy that Hollywood loves — the particulars allow for endless and subtle complications.

The Reader, after all, focuses far less on the Jewish victims of the Holocaust than on Winslet’s Hanna, a former SS guard charged with both selecting victims to be sent to Auschwitz and allowing prisoners trapped in a burning building to die in the fire. Far from demonized, Hanna is treated with unexpected sympathy by the film.

Her actions are neither forgiven nor justified, but we empathize with Hanna, however reluctantly, because Winslet so skillfully communicates the all-too-understandable shame and fear to which she consistently succumbs.

Holocaust films such as The Reader both illuminate the darkest corners of our souls and speak directly to our common humanity. Is it truly a surprise, then, that the Academy so consistently chooses to honor them?

Cliff Froehlich is executive director of Cinema St. Louis, which holds its annual Oscar Nite America fundraising party on Sunday, Feb. 22. For more information, visit www.cinemastlouis.org.