Sunday night is Oscar Night, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences confers its annual awards for the best films of the year. Past award ceremonies have proved more popularity contests than events that honor meritorious films for achievement and quality. One can easily point to great films that have slipped through the system and never received an Academy Award because their producers failed to sufficiently promote the films or because the films might have been perceived as politically — or at least Hollywood — incorrect.
One can easily fill bookshelves with volumes about the politics of Oscar selection. Just follow the advertisement campaigns that have traditionally preceded Oscar voting.
This year is particularly interesting for the Jewish community because of two of the submissions in the Best Foreign Language Film category. Tom Tugend, in last week’s Jewish Standard, addressed some of the issues surrounding the nomination of the controversial "Paradise Now."
Just as interesting is the inclusion of "Sophie Scholl—The Final Days," a film about Germany’s most famous anti-Nazi heroine. What role does the subject matter play in the minds of Academy members when they cast their ballots? How successful have Holocaust subject matter films been at the Oscars?
"Sophie Scholl—The Final Days" is talented 37-year-old German film director Marc Rothemund’s valiant effort at chronicling the last six days in the life of a young coed who almost accidentally became involved in the activities of an underground Munich-based resistance movement called the White Rose. It is 1943, and a small group of university students try to incite resistance by distributing leaflets on campus. Sophie, whose brother is active in the group, is swept up by the activity, so he volunteers. Sophie fully understands that what she is about to do is dangerous, but she does not quite understand the consequences of her action if caught. The film chronicles, quite successfully, her transformation over the course of a week from na?ve participant to fearless activist. We watch a superb portrayal, by gifted actress Julia Jentsch, of a young woman who faces adversity with incredible strength and determination.
Sophie Scholl’s story has become mythological in Germany. The actual facts and interrogation notes were kept locked up in East Germany and only became available in 1990, with the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Rothemund, who grew up knowing the story, was drawn not only by how Sophie’s character evolved in captivity but by how her primary interrogator, Robert Mohr, an everyday German, was a passive collaborator who upheld the laws no matter what they were.
The film represents an effort by a new generation of filmmakers to tackle the tough issues of that day. Over the last couple of years, films like Margarethe von Trotte’s "Rosenstrasse" and Oliver Hirschbiegel’s "Downfall" have struggled with these questions in a very different way than a previous generation’s anti-Nazi films like Volker Schl?ndorff’s "The Tin Drum" (1979) and Michael Verhoeven’s "The White Rose" (198′). As Rothemund, whose grandmother was a Nazi, explains it, ""the grandchildren are asking questions, and now they (the older generation) are starting to talk. Because we are really the last generation that can ask eyewitnesses. Pretty soon, there will be no more murderers, no more victims, no more follow-men." Curiously, this "grandchild generation" of German filmmakers is asking the hard questions of those who witnessed the horrors. In past years, films that touched on the Holocaust have garnered the top awards, sometimes when they might not have merited it.
In my mind, there is no doubt that Steven Spielberg’s "Schindler’s List" and Roberto Benigni’s "Life is Beautiful" deserved top honors in 1993 and 1998 respectively. But was Roman Polanski’s "The Pianist" truly the best directed film of ’00’? Was the 1997 short subject feature on Chiune Sugihara, "Visas and Virtue" truly the best? For nearly a decade through the 1990s, Holocaust films dominated the list of Oscar winners in the Best Documentary category, with questionable choices being Jon Blair’s 1995 "Anne Frank Remembered" and the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s 1996 "The Long Way Home." At the same time, the ‘001 "Into the Arms of Strangers" and 1995 "One Survivor Remembers" truly deserved the Oscar.
But will the Academy this year bring recognition to the "grandchild" generation of talented German filmmakers, like they did three years ago with Caroline Link’s brilliant "Nowhere in Africa," or will they show their sympathies with the Palestinian "Paradise Now?"
Looking at history, I think they will choose "Sophie Scholl."
Even though, yet again, we have a film about the courage of a German fighting Nazi tyranny and stories of Jewish heroism rarely get made into films, my vote this year goes to Marc Rothemund’s film.