Arts and Culture

End of the line for Holocaust-themed films?

LOS ANGELES (JTA) — Is the Holocaust passe for Hollywood and the world’s filmmakers?

This is the first year in at least half a century that not a single Oscar or Golden Globe entry has focused on the horrors of the Shoah.

Equally ignored, with one peripheral exception, are films on World War II and the Nazi regime.

Only a year ago, Jewish GIs were wiping out Hitler and his minions in “Inglourious Basterds,” and the year before we fed on German guilt and anti-Nazi resistance in “The Reader,” “Defiance” and “Valkyrie.”

While one year’s film output does not necessarily mark a trend, it may be even more significant that among the 65 foreign-language films vying for Oscar honors, which often reflect the present moods and concerns of their respective countries, none deal with that historic era.

By contrast, a year ago, films from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Norway, Slovenia and Holland centered on World War II and, in many instances, on the fate of the country’s Jews under German occupation.

While some current foreign entries touch on themes of war, oppression and resistance, the time frame has shifted from the 1930s and ‘40s to postwar communist and other dictatorships and to recent genocides.

Israel’s film industry, which came tantalizingly close to picking up its first Oscar by making the final five cut in each of the past three years, struck out this time with “The Human Resources Manager.”

In other Academy Award categories, Israel-themed entries have made a better showing.

The feature documentary “Precious Life,” by Tel Aviv newsman Shlomi Eldar, was shortlisted among the 15 semifinalists but did not make the final five. The film explored Israeli-Palestinian relationships through the efforts of Jewish doctors to save the life of a Gaza-born “bubble baby.”

Still in the running, though, is “Strangers No More,” an uplifting short documentary on the Bialik-Rogozin School in an impoverished section of south Tel Aviv. The school’s devoted teachers try to educate and integrate some 750 students, including many children of foreign workers, from 48 countries. Kirk Simon and Karen Goodman are the American directors.

Among the frontrunners to take home an Oscar for best picture is “The King’s Speech,” about the efforts of Britain’s King George VI to overcome a severe stutter.

The film shows the monarch studying Hitler’s oratory and rallying his people at the start of World War II, but does not touch on the upcoming Holocaust.

Indeed, critics have predicted year after year that the onset of “Holocaust fatigue” spelled the end of that particular film genre, only to be proven wrong the following award season.

The question now is whether the noticeable absence of current movies about Nazi crimes and World War II indicates that the predictions have finally come true, or whether we are looking at an aberration.

Five international film industry veterans expressed a range of opinions in interviews, most leaning toward the view that any obituary on Holocaust-themed movies was premature.

Producer Branko Lustig, an Oscar winner for “Schindler’s List” — perhaps the Holocaust picture with the greatest universal impact — was pessimistic.

Lustig, born in Croatia and a child Holocaust survivor, predicted that “when all the survivors are dead, people will forget about the Shoah. In 35 years they will not believe that it ever happened.”

The producer, who won a second Oscar for “Gladiator,” said he had been trying for years to make a movie about the Shanghai ghetto, where Jewish refugees found shelter during World War II.

“Nobody wants to put up money for this in the United States, Europe or Asia,” Lustig lamented.

Meyer Gottlieb, president of Samuel Goldwyn Films and also a child survivor, granted that a new generation of young filmmakers would naturally gravitate to more contemporary themes. He mostly blamed poor media coverage of Holocaust films for their waning popularity.

However, Gottlieb said, it was too early to announce the demise of the genre, noting that it often takes five to six years for a film to evolve from conception to finished product.

American director and writer Paul Mazursky, a five-time Oscar nominee for memorable movies ranging from “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” to “Down and Out in Beverly Hills,” avowed that “Holocaust fatigue will never set in …just look at the fantastic museums we have.”

Mazursky pointed out that the vagaries of the movie business could scuttle a promising project at any time. For instance, after he had made the well-received  “Enemies: A Love Story,” he wanted to follow up with “Shosha,” another Isaac Bashevis Singer novel.

“We had a producer, but when he died suddenly, we couldn’t find anyone else to put up the money, though I tried for 10 years,” he said.

Mazursky added, “I think, however, that future Holocaust movies will be made on low budgets and by independents, not the major studios.”

Deborah Oppenheimer, an Academy Award winner for “Into the Arms of Strangers,” a documentary on the Kindertransport of Jewish children from central Europe to England in the late 1930s, took the long-range view.

“There have always been ‘fatigues’ with different movie genres, such as science fiction or Westerns, but they come back when the right story comes along,” she said.

“So I don’t believe in a permanent ‘Holocaust fatigue’,” said Oppenheimer, now an NBC international television executive, pointing to the current French film “Sarah’s Key.”

Based on Tatiana de Rosney’s 2008 novel, the film centers on the roundup and deportation of French Jews in 1942. A spokeswoman for the Weinstein Company, which acquired the American distribution rights, said that no date has been set for theatrical release.

Susanne Bier, a Danish Jewish director whose “In a Better World” won a Golden Globe as best foreign language film and is a frontrunner in the same Oscar category, also is confident that Hollywood and European filmmakers will revive movies with Holocaust themes.

“Examining the nature of evil presents a universal challenge to writers and directors,” she said. “In that sense, the Holocaust will always be relevant.”