With diversity breaking out all over the Oscars this year, it seems right that it should spill into the foreign-language race. Although, as always, heavily weighted toward European productions (“A Man Called Ove” from Sweden, “Land of Mine” from Denmark, “Toni Erdmann” from Germany), the final list of five also encompasses west Asia (“The Salesman” from Iran) and the frequently overlooked Polynesian world (“Tanna” from Australia, named for the island in the Vanuatu archipelago where it was shot).
With a lusty U.S. box office take of over $3 million, “A Man Called Ove,” directed and written by Swedish veteran Hannes Holm from novelist Fredrik Bakman’s global bestseller, probably qualifies as the biggest crowd-pleaser among the contenders. Told from the POV of Ove (top Swedish star Rolf Lassgård), an imperiously grouchy widower forcibly retired from his factory job, the whimsical fable spins a narrative that has a secret story lying inside like an Easter egg.
“I rejected the offer to adapt it when it came to me, because I didn’t want to be the guy who ruined such a beloved novel,” Holm says by phone from Stockholm. “But then I re-read it, and changed my mind. It wasn’t a story about a grumpy old man, but was about a hidden love story inside the story. Readers of the book are always surprised when they discover this, and it was important for me that audiences get that same surprise.”
Taking on the novel marked a departure for Holm, a popular presence in commercial Swedish film and television as a director of projects usually starring comic actor Mans Herngren. “I often write my own films, and it wasn’t as if I had a guaranteed audience or hit adapting Bakman’s book. Book lovers can be aggressive people, and they can get very angry if you mess things up. I took real guidance from Bakman, who told me to not forget the details — like the kind of Saab cars that Ove loves to drive, or the mean cat that he battles with. These kind of details mean everything.”
Details of a different, historical sort concerned writer-director Martin Zandvliet involving “Land of Mine,” a tense dramatization of actual events at the end of World War II, when Denmark dragooned hundreds of German POWs to disarm and remove mines laid by their fellow German troops during the period of Nazi occupation.
Consumed with hatred and a desire for revenge, Sgt. Carl Rasmussen (Roland Moller) treats the mostly underage POWs with the contempt of the worst sort of slave owner, revealing a particularly dark study of Danes chafing from Nazi brutality.
“I was tired of Denmark being depicted as this nice, helpful nation,” Zandvliet says. “Every nation has its dark chapter, and this was one of ours, and needed to be told. Revenge doesn’t change anything. The movie’s point is that the more time you might spend with your former enemies, you learn that you’re not so different after all.”
Zandvliet established himself as a kind of actors’ director fascinated with the world of performing in his first features, particularly with the widely shown “Applause,” featuring star Paprika Steen in full Gena Rowlands mode. And, sure enough, in his early drafts of “Land of Mine,” the story began with the German soldiers putting on Brecht by night and soldiering by day. “I couldn’t at first get away from this impulse to depict performance, but I slowly removed all the theatrical elements and went to the core of the story.”
Before its Oscar spotlight, the movie has nabbed European Film Awards, including one for his cinematographer and wife, Camilla Hjelm Knudsen. “We’re a family unit on the set, with our kids seeing mom and dad making these movies together,” Zandvliet says.
If Brecht exited stage left during the writing of “Land of Mine,” Arthur Miller’s theater is palpable in Asghar Farhadi’s “The Salesman,” which patiently traces the dramatic intersections of the on- and off-stage lives of married co-leads Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) and Emad (Shahab Hosseini) as they produce “Death of a Salesman.”
“What strikes me most in Arthur Miller is his empathy for his central characters,” Farhadi says, “He doesn’t divide people into those who are guilty and victims. Miller’s plays can be seen in various ways, depending on the viewer, from the family side, or a political side, and also from a moral point of view.” As a filmmaker, Farhadi reflects, “This is what I’ve aspired to.”
It’s the heightening tensions of Rana and Emad’s life away from the sanctuary of the stage that give this its Milleresque fire. Farhadi’s movies, from “About Elly” through to “Fireworks Wednesday” and “A Separation,” dramatize various couples’ traumas, but he goes further in “Salesman” to suggest subjects taboo in Iranian cinema, such as sexual molestation or rape (the crime is never specified).
Farhadi believes that he’s “now more conscious” of his fascination with interpersonal relations, especially among married couples. “I think one of the reasons for this is that despite all of the world’s media and communications today, people are lonely. We carry a lot of personas. I can dive into this and each time come up with something different.”
Co-directors Bentley Dean and Martin Butler freely admit that their micro-budgeted “Tanna” seems like one of the most unlikely awards contenders ever. Dean calls it “ridiculous.”
The pair had never made a feature narrative movie, and determined that it would be cast in Yakel with people who had never seen a movie in their lives, and would be spoken in the local language of Nauvhal (heard mostly in Tanna’s southwest corner, where much of the filming took place). It would seem to be a formula for pure filmmaking disaster.
Dean and Butler, though, had an ace up their sleeves. They had a long history as docmakers for Australian television (the 2010 series “Contact,” followed by “First Footprints” in 2013) delving into the cultural history of Aboriginals, “so we had developed a particular skill set, involving deep respect for working with traditional peoples. We had wanted to take a stab at making a fiction movie, if we found the right location and circumstances,” Butler says.
The love story that developed in workshopping with the people in Yakel was based on a “Romeo and Juliet”-type true story of ill-fated lovers from opposing tribes on the island.
“The reason why this all worked, is that they really wanted to do this,” Dean says. “They believe that they have something special to present to the outside world.”
The Oscars have long ignored the Berlin School, German cinema’s most remarkable artistic flowering in the past 15 years, but with the nom for Maren Ade’s “Toni Erdmann,” that oversight is history. Though her earlier movies contained traces of humor, few at the Cannes premiere last year was prepared for the brilliant, patiently sustained comedy of “Toni,” as it follows the various pranks pulled by a deeply eccentric father (the scene-stealing Peter Simonischek) trying to get his glum daughter out of her existential funk.
“My father is close to Toni in that he has a big sense of humor,” Ade says. “He helped define daily life for me, so it became a part of my nature, and I try to put it in every film. The key for me with this comedy is that it isn’t played to the audience, which can be extremely difficult on a film shoot since you don’t really have an audience and can’t see the feedback and know if it’s working. He’s playing the comedy to his daughter inside the scene, and this makes all the difference. It freed me from the constraints of the genre.”