‘Zone of Interest’ Follows History of Holocaust Films at the Oscars

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The Academy’s tendency to award trophies to Holocaust movies has long been whispered about — and even occasionally joked about by cheeky comedians.

In 2009, shortly after Kate Winslet won a Golden Globe for her performance as a former Auschwitz guard in “The Reader,” presenter Ricky Gervais pointed to her in the audience and deadpanned, “I told ya, do a Holocaust movie; the awards come.”

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Winslet, who would go on to receive an Academy Award for her part in Stephen Daldry’s film, had several years earlier appeared on Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s HBO comedy “Extras” as an actor who stars in a film about the Holocaust in the hopes that it will earn her an Oscar.

The night of the Globes, Winslet laughed at Gervais’ ribbing, as did many in the crowd. It was a much a jab at the industry as much as it was at her.

“The spoof wasn’t entirely wrong,” says Annette Insdorf, a professor of film at Columbia University and the author of “Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust.” “The Academy Award track record vis-a-vis the Holocaust, including documentary features and shorts, reveals a high number of nominees and winners.”

And, as Insdorf adds, they “do tend to be ‘prestige’ films that commemorate and/or investigate the past.”

Jonathan Glazer’s “The Zone of Interest” has become the latest Holocaust movie nominated for Oscar gold. It is up for five trophies, including best picture and international feature, the only movie to cross over into both categories this year, increasing the odds it will snag the international statuette.

Hollywood has been making movies about Nazis since World War II and the reception to Holocaust films has varied over the decades. Thirty years ago, director Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” became the first film about the Holocaust to be awarded the best picture Oscar, winning six additional statuettes that evening. There’s also “The Pianist,” which gave director (and Holocaust survivor) Roman Polanski his first Oscar (for directing) and was nominated for best picture, and writer-director Charlie Chaplin’s parody film “The Great Dictator.” Chaplin’s movie received five nominations including one for the top prize (then called “outstanding production”) but came up empty at the ceremony.

Historical context is key to understanding some of these wins and losses.

Insdorf notes that Chaplin’s film, which was released in 1940, and Ernst Lubitsch’s “To Be or Not to Be,” which was released in 1942 and only received a nomination for Werner Heymann’s score, “were black comedies that satirized Nazis, and they shocked wartime audiences with their audacity. Chaplin’s film was even banned in Chicago, which had a large German population.”

By the late 1950s and early ’60s, “enough time had passed after World War II for ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ and ‘Judgement at Nuremberg’ to be released and respectfully received,” she continues, mentioning films that were nominated for the top prize in 1960 and ’62 and won in other categories.

Even then, Insdorf cautioned, “Hollywood executives were hesitant about making films that could upset audiences, so they chose adaptations that were already successful in other forms.”

Things have changed considerably since then. “If the first wave of Holocaust films from the 1950s to 1970s established basic facts of deportation and extermination, the second wave concentrated on resistance and rescue,” Insdorf says.

She adds that, while some projects, like director Frank Pierson’s 2001 televised movie “Conspiracy” about the Wannsee Conference, were “straightforward depictions,” others like “The Reader” “explored the moral failings of those on the wrong side of history.”

Have there really been so many films about the Holocaust that the subject is as much of a trope as Gervais implied at the Globes ceremony 15 years ago?

Lexi Leban has certainly seen a lot of films about the Holocaust as executive director of the Jewish Film Institute, which produces the annual San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

“So many filmmakers, including those who identify as Jewish and those who do not identify as Jewish, continue to generate related works,” she says. “And I can say the ones that we tend to gravitate toward, and program, are films that approach this subject in an original way, and in a thoughtful way, so as to engage and impact viewers in terms of self-reflective and thought-provoking work.”

Leban name-checks “Zone,” as well as 2016 foreign-language Oscar winner “Son of Saul” and director and star Jesse Eisenberg’s new Sundance darling “A Real Pain” as films “that break conventions.” “Zone” is about Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss and his family, who live an idyllic life just outside the walls of depravity. “Saul” is about a man seeking a traditional Jewish burial for a child. And “Pain” is about cousins who return to Poland after their grandmother’s death and join a Holocaust tour.

It’s noteworthy that this subject gets explored the way it does. Compare films about the Holocaust to, for example, ones about LGBTQ+ discrimination and civil rights. Hilary Swank got her first lead actress Oscar for “Boys Don’t Cry” and Tom Hanks got his first lead actor Oscar for “Philadelphia.” But neither film was nominated for best picture (“Philadelphia,” coincidentally, was released the same year as “Schindler’s List”). “Milk” won trophies for lead actor Sean Penn and Dustin Lance Black’s original screenplay. But the film, along with Winslet’s “The Reader,” lost the top race to “Slumdog Millionaire.”

“The Holocaust continues to provide an inherently dramatic context for stories about victims, villains, rescuers, and those in between,” Insdorf says. “Movies such as ‘Schindler’s List’ and ‘The Pianist’ reveal a vast spectrum of human behavior, which are relevant to the present day, and pose compelling moral questions like, ‘what would I have done in that situation?’ ”

The Oct. 7 Hamas attacks in Israel have increased the spotlight on antisemitism around the globe. But Insdorf doesn’t think this will necessarily make “Zone” a winner on Oscar night. However, she says, “I think, and hope, that good films about the Holocaust will continue to be made.

“In addition to the hundreds that have already been produced, there are countless untold stories from that era, as well as the post-war legacy,” she says.

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