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How to tackle a tyrant

Eye on the Oscars: Foreign Language

Oppression never goes out of style — as evidenced by the vast number of foreign-language Oscar submissions this year that recount tales of totalitarian governments and repressive groups, and the entrapped individuals who struggle against them.

Whether it’s 18th Century Denmark (“A Royal Affair”), 1950s Czechoslovakia (“In the Shadow”), Chile and East Germany in the 1980s (“No,” “Barbara”), war-ravaged Germany in the wake of World War II (“Lore”), an ultra-orthodox religious community in rural Romania (“Beyond the Hills”) or brutal child militias in Africa (“War Witch”), there’s a whole lot of subjugation to go around.

Many of the films are historical excavations of past wrongs — visions of deep-rooted traumas that are finally coming home to roost. As “Barbara” director Christian Petzold says, “I think cinema is always working on these vanished or repressed memories. It’s like the Americans needed five-10 years to say something about the Vietnam War.

“It’s not like the news or TV. It’s working on things that are traumatic or hidden, but come back like phantoms.”

Like “Barbara,” which is set in East Germany during the height of the country’s communist reign of paranoia and control, Chilean director Pablo Larrain’s “No” addresses his country’s long period of suppression under the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. “For countries like my country, justice never came,” he says. “It’s an open wound and there’s a lot of pain that hasn’t been solved or explained.”

Hence, “No,” like Larrain’s previous Pinochet-era movies “Tony Manero” and “Post Mortem,” is the filmmaker’s attempt to comprehend what happened in his country when he was a sheltered youngster. But Larrain hasn’t been able to find any answers. “It’s impossible to understand how society can do so much damage to itself,” he admits.

Similarly, Aussie director Cate Shortland, whose film “Lore” focuses on a German teenager coming to grips with her Nazi indoctrination, wanted to interrogate the way “we articulate our history.” In the film, the main character slowly becomes aware of “the totalitarian society that existed within (herself) and supported,” Shortland says.

Even though Nikolaj Arcel’s “A Royal Affair” is set in Denmark over 200 years ago, the Danish filmmaker says the themes in the film — pitting science vs. religion, and rich vs. poor — “mirror what’s going on today.” While “Affair” charts the battle between arch conservative religious forces against the reformist principles of the Enlightenment, Arcel finds contemporary echoes of the film’s conflicts in everything from the rhetoric in America’s recent presidential campaign to the rise of nationalist political parties in Europe over the past decade. Arcel says the connections are “quite obvious. … We’re saying let’s please keep moving forward, and try to have rationality conquer irrationality.”

A similar theme emerges in Cristian Mungiu’s Cannes-decorated “Beyond the Hills,” which follows two young women in a rural monastery in Romania — one of whom is effectively tortured in an attempt to “save her” from her sins. Based on a true story, Mungiu saw the event a way to explore several ideas, among them, “what happens if you interpret religion literally” and “the side effects of tolerating irrational beliefs in society.”

Mungiu — whose 2007 Palme d’Or-winning drama “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” was widely hailed by critics and raised an outcry when it was left out of Oscar’s foreign-language race — uses the religious sect at the film’s center to explore not only the fundamentalist strictures of religion, but a country that has lost its moral sense “because of poverty, lack of systematical education and indoctrination,” through its repressive communist history, he says.

David Ondricek’s Czech Republic submission “In the Shadow” more overtly addresses the dangers of communism, both past and present. While set in 1953 in Czechoslovakia, when the communist authorities attempted to confiscate people’s assets through monetary reform, Ondricek says the film resonates with an “extremely corrupt time” in his country at the moment, “where the word ‘morality’ has lost its meaning. Theft is normal and politics is, before all else, a ticket to the trough.”

Despite highlighting a morass of moral turpitude and political tyranny, many of these films, at their core, also reflect a spirit of resistance and triumph over oppression.

The child soldier in Kim Nguyen’s “War Witch,” for example, escapes her rebel army to live, at least momentarily, in peace; the protagonist of “Barbara,” a doctor banished to a small East German town, operates as a kind of underground resistance fighter; the main character in “No” is an ad man who comes up with the persuasive political campaign that eventually leads to Pinochet’s ouster; and the young woman in “Lore” eventually rejects the Nazi doctrine that defined her.

Or as the young Danish queen in “A Royal Affair” says, “For a while, we felt we could do something: Bring about change.”

“No’s” Larrain agrees. “I think there’s a worldwide feeling right now that people can actually organize ways and work together to actually change things. And that’s not something that comes from fiction. That comes from real stories. Like the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street; these social movements are trying to express that things aren’t all right.”

Eye on the Oscars: Foreign Language
How to tackle a tyrant | Taking a page from Hollywood, and vice versa | Berger’s own silent tribute | Director Haneke’s one from the heart

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