- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 18, 2009


The Oscars may have a history of honoring films set against the backdrop of the Holocaust, but critics are questioning the timing of a fresh crop of films depicting the Nazi horrors of World War II.

This year’s awards season saw an unusually crowded field of movies dubbed Holocaust films: “The Reader,” “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” “Good,” “Valkyrie,” “Adam Resurrected” and “Defiance.”

One of those films - “The Reader” - has been nominated for five Oscars, including best picture, best director and best actress for Kate Winslet, who plays a former prison guard from a Nazi death camp.

The awards-season success of “The Reader” and the fact that so many films set in the Nazi era have hit screens recently have reinforced the notion that studios are guilty of mining the Holocaust for awards-season gold.

Ron Rosenbaum, a New York-based journalist and author of “Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil,” decries “The Reader” as “the worst Holocaust film ever made.”

“This is a film whose essential metaphorical thrust is to exculpate Nazi-era Germans from knowing complicity in the Final Solution,” Mr. Rosenbaum commented in an essay on Slate.com.

“The fact that it was recently nominated for a best picture Oscar offers stunning proof that Hollywood seems to believe that if it’s a ‘Holocaust film’ it must be worthy of approbation, end of story.”

Meanwhile, Andrew Wallenstein, deputy editor of the Hollywood Reporter, suggested in a commentary on National Public Radio that some filmmakers were “exploiting mass tragedy to earn the kind of gravitas the Holocaust confers.”

“While it would be nice to chalk up this trend to some grand artistic need to grapple with such a terrifying period of history, you have to note the timing of the release of these films,” Mr. Wallenstein said.

“Let’s just say it: The real reason we see so many of these movies is that they’re awards bait.”

Annette Insdorf, director of undergraduate film studies at Columbia University and author of “Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust,” acknowledges that while many Holocaust-related movies have been honored at the Oscars, that is as much a reflection of Hollywood’s “fascination - and golden recompense for - stories of wartime evil, struggle and redemption.”

Miss Insdorf also disagrees with criticisms leveled at “The Reader,” saying the movie is not even a “Holocaust film” in the strictest sense of the meaning.

“It’s about a young man’s rite of passage: The woman with a World War II secret is seen through the perspective of an enamored youth,” Miss Insdorf says.

The film, like the Bernhard Schlink novel from which it was adapted, is about “very particular and compelling characters who meet after World War II,” she adds.

Scott Feinberg, who writes for the Los Angeles Times’ theenvelope.com, says movies about the Holocaust may benefit because Academy voters tend to favor films that “make some kind of important statement.”

“The movies that win are the ones where you leave the theater thinking about bigger questions,” Mr. Feinberg says.

“Where Hollywood gets into hot water is with films like ‘The Reader’ this year. A lot of people are upset because they say it’s just an obvious play at trying to win an Oscar.

“I think people just get sensitive when they think that the Holocaust is being used for any reason other than a noble one.

“That said, it’s almost always the case that good movies float to the top. They’re not going to reward junk just because it’s about the Holocaust.”

Mr. Feinberg says the Academy’s inclination to reward films that tackle weightier themes may explain why “The Reader” was able to muscle its way onto the list of best-picture nominees when many pundits had expected the Batman blockbuster “The Dark Knight” to get a nod.

“Plenty of people this year are furious that ‘The Reader’ apparently knocked out ‘The Dark Knight’ ,” Mr. Feinberg says.

“Fairly or unfairly, there are genre biases against some kinds of films, like superhero movies such as ‘The Dark Knight.’ There are also genre biases in favor of some kinds of films, which gave ‘The Reader’ a boost.”

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