'The Reader' puts Holocaust back in Oscars spotlight

HOLLYWOOD - 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.

By (AFP)

Published: Tue 17 Feb 2009, 1:34 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 8:51 AM

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, has 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," decried "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," 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 film-makers 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," 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," acknowledged that while many Holocaust-related movies have been honored at the Oscars, it was as much a reflection of Hollywood's "fascination -- and golden recompense for -- stories of wartime evil, struggle and redemption."

In comments emailed to AFP, Insdorf disagreed with criticisms leveled at "The Reader," saying the movie was 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," Insdorf said.

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 added.

Scott Feinberg, who writes for the Los Angeles Times's theenvelope.com, said movies about the Holocaust may benefit because Academy voters tended to favor films "which make some kind of important statement."

"The movies that win are the ones where you leave the theater thinking about bigger questions," Feinberg told AFP.

"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."

Feinberg said the Academy's inclination to reward films which tackledweightier themes may explain why "The Reader" was able to muscle its way onto the list of best picture nominees when many pundits had expected 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'," Feinberg said.

"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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