Academy Awards Often Shine For Holocaust-Themed Films

By Lisa Keys

Published March 21, 2003, issue of March 21, 2003.
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This Sunday, documentary film directors Malcolm Clarke and Stuart Sender will don their tuxedos, smile for the paparazzi and sit anxiously in the Kodak Theatre, waiting to see if their names will follow the words, “And the Oscar goes to…”

In the 2002 Academy Awards Best Documentary Feature category, Clarke and Sender face tough competition. They’re up against Michael Moore’s popular “Bowling for Columbine,” which was recently named Best Documentary of All Time by the International Documentary Association. But if history is any indicator, “Prisoner of Paradise” has a distinct advantage when it comes to the Oscars: The film — detailing the demise of German-Jewish actor and director Kurt Gerron, who was forced to make a Nazi propaganda film while imprisoned at Theresienstadt — is about the Holocaust.

During the last seven years, a Holocaust-related documentary has garnered the golden statuette five times. Back in 1997, when Spike Lee’s acclaimed film “Four Little Girls” lost to “The Long Way Home,” the director infamously said, “I’d have rather been the New York Knicks in the fourth quarter, down 10 points, a minute left in the United Center, than have the odds we faced of winning the Oscar against the Holocaust film.”

Wim Wenders, too, in 1999, saw his hugely successful “Buena Vista Social Club” lose to “One Day in September,” a virtually unseen film about the murder of the Israeli delegation to the 1972 Olympic Games — a film that makes numerous, explicit Holocaust connections. “I was disappointed, but not because we lost,” Wenders told The Nation. “Only because we had not really had a fair chance to win.”

Is it just sour grapes, or is there really favoritism for Holocaust films in the Academy?

During interviews by the Forward with film insiders, immediate reactions to the question were glib, responses like “Look, there are a lot of Jews in the industry,” and “Everyone knows Jews control the media.”

But the serious answer, for some, is simple. “The Holocaust is an incredibly important topic — it looms over the 20th century,” said Owen Gleiberman, film critic at Entertainment Weekly. “A sizeable percentage of what I know about the Holocaust is from documentaries — it’s the single most powerful, truthful way to learn about that time in history.”

“It’s kind of a faultless subject,” said Gleiberman’s colleague at the magazine, Lisa Schwarzbaum. “It moves you just by saying the word. If you have a humanitarian bone in your body, it’s going to come out on this subject.

“It’s maybe so clearly good and evil — it’s right in front of you,” she continued. “Maybe those stories inspire a kind of passion in the people making them that gets translated into the film.”

Charles Taylor, a contributing writer at Salon, said: “The Academy tends to go for big, epic movies that they think are on important historic topics. Topics that are serious, worthy, virtuous. It’s almost always an issue that’s decided in terms of subject matter, as if importance of subject matter is the only thing that determines whether a movie is good or not.”

“With documentaries, there’s sort of an assumption that it’s a worthy subject,” he said. “If you’re looking at a documentary, you judge its worth by the importance of the subject matter rather than how well-made the film is. Which isn’t to say that some aren’t well made; which isn’t to say if it’s a fantastic subject, who cares if it’s well made or not?”

The same principle often holds true for feature films, of which “Schindler’s List” and “Life is Beautiful” have been recent Holocaust-themed success stories at the Oscars. This year, Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist,” based on the memoir of a Warsaw Ghetto survivor, is nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Picture. “Nowhere in Africa,” the story of a Jewish family that flees Nazi persecution and resettles in Africa, is favored to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.

“I think ‘The Pianist’ this year has been over-praised because it’s a Holocaust movie,” Gleiberman said. “I think if the exact same escape saga had been set somewhere else it wouldn’t have the same kind of power people are ascribing to it.”

The Holocaust, in general, said Michael Berenbaum, a Holocaust expert and director of the Zigi Ziering Institute at the University of Judaism, “is an expression in the most extreme of what is present in the mainstream.” As such, he said, it exemplifies “the human capacity for good, the human capacity for evil, the human capacity to lose, the human capacity to rebound.”

Most of the recent winning Holocaust films were “a specific genre of Holocaust movies,” Berenbaum said. “What the films have in common in addition to the Holocaust is the riveting, compelling story of survivors speaking in their own words.

“I don’t think it’s a shoo-in for the Holocaust; it’s the compelling narration of these extraordinary witnesses who are really in the final stages of their lives,” he added.

Some have suggested that certain Holocaust documentaries have benefited from the Academy’s complicated rules for the Best Documentary category, such as requirements that the voter must see all five nominated films in a theatrical release. Arthur Cohn, the producer of “One Day in September,” was accused by Wenders of limiting screenings of his film — thereby “stacking” the audience and targeting voters.

Adding to the tenuous nature of Oscar prediction is the mysterious identity of Academy members — leaving many to wonder whether the 75th anniversary of the Academy Awards also commemorates the average age of its members. According to Dawn Newell, a spokeswoman for the Academy, “We don’t have ages on people — it’s definitely a cross-section.”

But Cy Feuer, 92, a veteran composer and movie producer, describes his fellow New York-based Academy members as “an older crowd.”

“I’m going to sound like Spike Lee: Clearly there are a lot of aging Jewish people in the Academy. It’s just a fact,” Schwarzbaum said.

The demographics of the Academy have led some to speculate that Holocaust films speak to the voters particularly strongly. Still, even if the Academy is chockablock with elderly Jews — as per popular perception — “If a movie wins an Academy Award, it got a lot of votes from a lot of people,” Gleiberman said. “Holocaust movies speak to issues that transcend Judaism.”

Oscar hopefuls Sender and Clarke, on the other hand, worry about the flip side of Holocaust favoritism: Holocaust fatigue. “People are sick of films about the Holocaust,” Sender said. “When we decided to tackle this subject we were cognizant of it; we thought it might hurt us. People were reluctant when we were fundraising, they said, ‘Oh, another Holocaust film.’”

It’s hardly a given that “Prisoner of Paradise” will carry the night. Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine” has won countless awards and is enjoying a wide distribution across the country. Also in the running are the critically acclaimed “Daughter from Danang,” about an adoptee’s search for her mother, the bird epic “Winged Migration” and “Spellbound,” which profiles competitors in the National Spelling Bee. Clarke estimates his film’s chance of winning at 20% — an even shot for any single nominee in a field of five.

“I don’t think our film would have been nominated if it hadn’t been well-made,” said Sender. “It’s not a good Holocaust movie — it’s a good movie.”

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