“I told you, do a Holocaust movie and the awards come, didn’t I?” Ricky Gervais exclaimed to “Extras” co-star Kate Winslet at last year’s Golden Globes. Gervais was joking, but it’s hard to ignore that it was a role in World War II-themed “The Reader” that earned Winslet her first Oscar.
The subject also dominates this year’s foreign-language race. Among the 65 films submitted to the Academy this year for Oscar consideration, eight touch on WWII or the Holocaust in varied ways: “Baaria” (Italy), “Broken Promise” (Slovakia), “Landscape No. 2” (Slovenia) “Max Manus” (Norway), “Protektor” (Czech Republic), “Refractaire” (Luxembourg) and “Winter in Wartime” (the Netherlands) unfold during that time, while Germany’s 1912-set “The White Ribbon” reveals something amiss with the generation that went on to become Nazis.
And that doesn’t count two other Oscar-hopefuls: American-made WWII revenge fantasies “Inglourious Basterds” and “Iron Cross.”
Hollywood has been tackling the weighty topic in earnest since the late ’50s. “The Diary of Anne Frank” and “Judgment at Nuremberg,” to name just two examples, garnered 21 Oscar noms and five wins between them. Such enthusiastic Academy support combined with the subject’s inherent drama has made WWII- and Holocaust-themed films something of a kudos season staple.
“Holocaust-related films — whether fiction, documentary, feature, short, American or foreign — prevail during awards season,” notes Annette Insdorf, director of undergraduate film studies at Columbia U. “From ‘The Tin Drum’ of 1979 (Germany’s first foreign-language film Oscar) to ‘The Counterfeiters’ in 2007, Hollywood has demonstrated a fascination with stories of wartime evil, struggle and redemption.”
In the last decade alone, “The Counterfeiters,” “Life Is Beautiful” and “Nowhere in Africa” won foreign-language film Oscars, leading some to speculate that the Academy (famously older and more Jewish than the general public) is predisposed to such stories.
But audiences should be careful not to pigeonhole these films, insists Sony Pictures Classics co-topper Michael Barker.
“Yes, Academy members may be interested in the subject, but they are interested in a lot of other subjects as well. These aren’t mediocre movies being made on the topic. These are high-quality films,” says Barker, who released “The Counterfeiters,” “Black Book” and “Divided We Fall.” The company has high hopes for this year’s “The White Ribbon,” which won Cannes’ Palme d’Or.
“The Academy also looks at film from a different angle,” says Claudia Landsberger, managing director of Holland Film, who participated in the Netherlands’ decision to submit “Winter in Wartime.” As each country selects its best contender, she feels, “It needs to be a film that has a lot of elements that people can judge, like sound and picture and production values.”
In general, WWII stories tend to feature bigger budgets and more technical polish than high-art festival favorites, which might explain why they tend to be nominated over critical darlings such as “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” or “Silent Light.” The subject carries narrative advantages as well, blending dramatic moral choices with action-adventure elements.
“(The Holocaust) provides a rich backdrop for themes that are universal to cinema — possibilities for heroism as well as evil and the guilt of indifference,” Insdorf explains. “Many claim the phenomenon (of audience fatigue) already exists, but I personally believe that cinematic oblivion might be worse than the possibility of too many Holocaust-related films.”
According to “Max Manus” producer John M. Jacobsen, Norway had a rich tradition of WWII movies until the early ’60s, when the peace-and-love generation turned against such stories. “‘Max Manus’ is actually the first time we have made a WWII movie in about 20 years. I don’t think we could have made it 10 years ago, because there was simply no interest,” he says.
But recent conflicts have made these scenarios more relevant today. “There’s a growing feeling of insecurity about the enormous number of immigrants in Europe, which feeds the nationalistic and fascist groups,” Landsberger observes. “We thought such atrocities won’t happen again after WWII, and here we were looking at Muslims living in a camp and being killed.”
But as “Broken Promise” producer Iveta Cerna Ivanova points out, “New neo-Nazi groups are growing in many Central European countries, including Slovakia.” The country hadn’t produced a film about the Holocaust since 1965’s “The Shop on Main Street,” which won the Academy Award, and Cerna Ivanova felt young audiences needed to hear the story. “We should not lose memory of this historical era to prevent it from happening again,” she says.
Aimed at broad audiences, WWII films often do well at the European box office, making it easier to finance these relatively expensive projects in a system that depends heavily on co-production and television money. “Max Manus,” a biopic about a Norwegian resistance hero, cost about $8 million and earned 1.2 million admissions (in a country of 4.8 million). “Baaria,” an epic tale that unfolds over several generations beginning around WWII, was budgeted around $30 million. And “Winter in Wartime” outgrossed “Twilight” and “The Dark Knight” in its native Netherlands.
Not just any WWII story will do. As Germany’s Medienboard Film Funding CEO Kirsten Niehuus asserts, “It’s the filmmakers who come to us with new, unique takes on the topic that are of interest.”
For example, “Protektor” focuses on a Czech radio journalist who tries to protect his Jewish wife by broadcasting Nazi propaganda. Others concentrate on younger characters: “Winter in Wartime” depicts a boy who helps an English pilot stay out of German hands, and “Broken Promise” relates the true story of a young Jewish soccer player who escaped concentration camp life to fight with Soviet partisans.
Jacobsen feels these stories are more vital than ever because young people haven’t heard enough about the subject. The “Max Manus” producer describes a letter he received from a 17-year-old fan. “He said something that was shocking: ‘My girlfriend didn’t even know who Adolf Hitler was.’ There is a tremendous knowledge gap out there, and we have the ability to fill that. We should take that opportunity.”