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Why Movies Keep Going Back to the Holocaust

This year it's "Denial" starring Rachel Weisz and a new documentary from Ken Burns, but they may not hit Oscar's soft spot.

“Denial”

When making Oscar predictions, I’ve learned to never underestimate the Holocaust movie. When in doubt with those pesky documentary short subjects, pick the one about the Holocaust. It sounds crass, and it’s an eye-rolling industry truism, but if you chose “The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life” in 2014, you were right. Out of seven nominated Holocaust feature documentaries, six won the Oscar.

The Holocaust is a heart-rending and complicated subject. There have been many other genocides in history, of course; Oscar-winner “The Killing Fields” addressed Cambodia, and other films have examined Armenia, Rwanda, Indonesia, and Bosnia. Still, that’s nothing compared to the hundreds of movies that have addressed how Adolf Hitler and his Nazis exterminated 6 million Jews during World War II.

"Ida"

“Ida”

This year is no exception. Well-intentioned court procedural “Denial” (Bleecker Street), starring Rachel Weisz as an American academic on trial in Britain for defaming a Holocaust denier (Timothy Spall), opens Friday with Oscar hopes on its sleeve. And Ken Burns’ latest PBS documentary, “Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War” (streaming now), co-directed with Artemis Joukowsky, joins the long list of nonfiction treatments.

Géza Röhrig and László Nemes of "Son of Saul."

Géza Röhrig and László Nemes of “Son of Saul.”

The cliche is true: Many older, Jewish Academy members, who remember World War II, lean in to the subject. “They can’t get enough,” one Oscar campaigner told me. “The Jews built the industry. Since World War II, it’s one horror story they’ve told over and over again.”

They vary from Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” (which leads the Oscar pack with nine), Bob Fosse’s “Cabaret,” Alan J. Pakula’s “Sophie’s Choice,” and Kraków ghetto survivor Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist” to Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglorious Basterds.”

The list is also long among documentaries (“The Long Way Home”) and foreign-language films (“Ida”). And there are four memorable foreign language nominees that did not win, like Agnieszka Holland’s 1985 “Angry Harvest” and Lina Wertmuller’s 1975 entry “Seven Beauties.”

 An annual Holocaust Film Series in Australia has no trouble booking 30 premieres every year. This spring’s 2015 edition presented films from 15 countries, from Atom Egoyan’s “Remember” starring Christopher Plummer as an Auschwitz survivor to “Persona Non Grata” about a Japanese vice-consul who issued 200 visas to Jewish refugees.

However, if the list of deserving Oscar winners is deep (the most recent being the 2016 best foreign film, László Nemes’ “Son of Saul”), so are the piles of forgotten Holocaust dramas, from “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” to “The Book Thief.”

“Denial” is such a movie. Like Oscar-bait “My Week with Marilyn,” the film puts a bankable, Oscar-winning actress (Rachel Weisz, “The Constant Gardener”) at the center of a movie where she doesn’t really have that much to do. When the movie works, it’s about the complex legal process of constructing an argument debunking the Holocaust denier. This may be why “Denial” has soft reviews that are not quite what an Oscar contender needs.

Burns is more successful with his film, which approaches the topic with a very intimate story. He was toying with a long-form look at America and the Holocaust when he became distracted by his friend Joukowsky’s film about his grandparents, Waitskill and Martha Sharp, who left their children behind to save hundreds of Jews in Europe.

While juggling multiple projects from “The Address” to the PBS series “The Vietnam War,” Burns found himself obsessively reorganizing Joukowsky’s movie late into the night. He eventually took over the project, partly because Joukowsky was too close to his subject.

Martha Sharp gives out milk during World War II.

Martha Sharp gives out milk during World War II.

Courtesy of Sharp family.

“This is one hell of a story,” said Burns. “This is a Unitarian minister and his wife who lived this comfortable, middle-class life where the biggest drama was what they were going to say on Sunday. They leave their little kids behind and she’s dodging Gestapo agents in the darkened streets of Prague and he’s in capitals laundering money. I was drawn to this [historical spy novelist] Alan Furst quality, this intrigue, I bump into this intimate story.

“Finally, you say 6 million and it means nothing anymore. It’s an opaque, impenetrable Fort Knox, it doesn’t have meaning to us. Here on the edges of the Holocaust you’ve got a couple involved in saving a few hundred human beings. It’s dramatic and compelling and filled with the courage of sacrifice— and the price of sacrifice, in the case of their marriage and family. But each one of the people they saved turned into somebody. And then it becomes about potentiality. You can think of 6 million just like each of these intimates you got to know, who became a professor or a poet or joined the RAF. It’s about the lives not lived.”

As to why filmmakers keep returning to this topic, Burns says he expects it to continue.

“The 6 million are an amputated limb that we still feel that still itches and aches,” he said. “That’s what it means.”

 

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