You can’t go home again, goes the old saying — and for many Hollywood émigré filmmakers over the years, from Billy Wilder to Milos Forman, it has proved true. But exceptions have always endured, hopping productively between between continents: recently, take Taiwanese-born Ang Lee, fitting in Chinese-language epics like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Lust, Caution” amid glossy U.S. prestige projects, or Chilean auteur Pablo Larrain, who sandwiched the Natalie Portman starrer “Jackie” between homegrown projects.
In this year’s Oscar race for best foreign-language film, meanwhile, a trio of accomplished, globe-trotting writer-directors — all former Oscar winners themselves — are reaping the benefits of returning to native territory after a spell in English-lingo cinema. For Germany’s Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, Poland’s Pawel Pawlikowski and Mexico’s Alfonso Cuaron, going home has given them the freedom to tell ambitious, sometimes highly personal stories they couldn’t have told abroad. Yet all have attracted global interest on the festival circuit and awards campaign trail: They remain filmmakers of the world.
For Henckel von Donnersmarck, his sweeping, three-hour historical saga “Never Look Away” represents not just a homecoming, but a much-awaited creative comeback — arriving as it does eight years after one of the most infamous sophomore slumps in recent industry history. The Cologne-born aristocrat had a dream debut with “The Lives of Others,” a classically told, universally beloved 2006 drama of unlikely human connection in the shadows of Stasi-era subterfuge. It won the director, then only 33, an Oscar, as well as the attention of Hollywood producers — leading to 2010’s Angelina Jolie-Johnny Depp vehicle “The Tourist,” a flat-footed, critically lambasted caper that proved disastrously ill-tailored to his quiet, sober storytelling style.
In returning to Germany for “Never Look Away,” Henckel von Donnersmarck has regrouped and regained his form: the decades-spanning film is based loosely on the life of artist Gerhard Richter. It follows a young artist (Tom Schilling) as he flees from East to West Germany, confronting the horrors of his country’s Nazi past via his work and personal relationships. Like “The Lives of Others,” the film sincerely addresses German historical trauma through humane melodrama; unveiled to warm reviews at the Venice Film Festival, it landed a Golden Globe nomination and cracked the foreign-language Oscar shortlist.
Whether or not it goes further, its director has happily course-corrected.
It was personal, rather than professional, misfortune that eventually led Polish-British auteur Pawlikowski back to his childhood home of Warsaw to make 2014’s “Ida,” a film itself about hybrid identities and confronting one’s roots. Having been based in London since his teens, Pawlikowski initially made his name with a pair of striking, BAFTA-winning British indies, “Last Resort” and “My Summer of Love,” before the untimely passing of his wife put his filmmaking on hold. Relocating first to Paris, where he directed Ethan Hawke and Kristin Scott Thomas in the lukewarm noir “The Woman in the Fifth,” he finally found himself back in Poland. “Ida,” a film exquisitely born of loss and melancholy, heralded a new phase of his career, winning him an Oscar and becoming his most widely viewed work.
It also paved the way for “Cold War,” Pawlikowski’s most personal film to date — inspired by the tempestuous romance of his parents, and capturing the statelessness and yearning of the migrant artist. Like “Ida,” it’s a gorgeous black-and-white elegy with a narrative rooted in Poland, though its love story of two musicians who can’t live with or without each other slides back and forth across European borders, trying to find its hero and heroine a place where they can simply be. It never quite does; the happy homecoming that Pawlikowski has enjoyed eludes his characters. It’s a rich, restless film that landed him best director at Cannes, and should once more take the Academy’s fancy.
Not quite as much, however, as Alfonso Cuaron’s own semi-autobiographical passion project, the Mexico City memory piece “Roma”: the year’s most critically awarded film by some distance, it’s expected not just to take the foreign-language Oscar, but to also contend for best picture and director too. If it takes the latter prize, it’ll be Cuaron’s second film in a row to do so: his 3D outer space spectacular “Gravity” took him, in all senses, about as far from home as a filmmaker can go.
Where can you go from there, after all, but humbly down to Earth? “Roma” is Cuaron’s first Mexico-set film since his deliciously sensual 2001 coming-of-ager “Y tu Mama Tambien,” but it’s hardly the same kind of scrappy local brew: an intimate but robustly imagined epic realized in immaculate black-and-white, it takes all the formal expertise that he gained on such large-scale studio productions as “Gravity,” “Children of Men” and even “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” and brings it all home in more ways than one, breaking new artistic ground in the process.
For Cuaron, as for Pawlikowski and Henckel von Donnersmarck, going back doesn’t mean going backwards.