Oscar Foreign-Language: ‘Toni Erdmann,’ ‘Elle’ Join War-Themed Entries From Europe

Jay Weissberg

Trying to identify thematic patterns in the submissions for the foreign-language Oscars is harder than detecting “notes of loam, peach and toast” in a bottle of Chardonnay – you tend to wonder whether any of it is real or if it’s all about showing off. Usually there’s one exception to the rule for European entries, and 2016’s choices don’t buck the trend: World War II. Not just the Holocaust, that perennial monstrous evergreen whose unfathomable horrors are somehow thought to be perfect big-screen fodder, usually by diehard sentimentalists with no grasp of a genocide’s profundity (although both “Ida” and “Son of Saul” blew that axiom out of the water). This year basically only Andrei Konchalovsky’s “Paradise” deals full on with the Holocaust, making it a probable candidate for at least the short list, but the World War II still features aplenty in the nominees. In general though, the 2016 titles most likely to make it to the home stretch defy easy categorization, especially when two of the top contenders have been summarized respectively, but not respectfully, as a German comedy (“Toni Erdmann”) and a “rape-comedy” (“Elle”).

Given that the last two years have seen WWII-themed films win the top prize (the aforementioned “Ida” and “Son of Saul”), it’s not surprising that the conflict should continue to figure large in the nominations. Besides “Paradise,” which received a mixed critical reception in Venice, there’s Denmark’s “Land of Mine,” Martin Zandvliet’s well-received drama that opened Toronto’s new competition “Platform” section. Scandinavia as a whole seems to be on a 1940s kick (at least when it comes to Oscar submissions), with Norway’s entry “The King’s Choice,” directed by Erik Poppe, focusing on the nation’s wartime monarch Haakon VII and his resistance to the Nazi occupation. Less likely to make it beyond the longlist is Macedonia’s “The Liberation of Skopje,” directed by father-son duo Rade and Danilo Šerbedžija, and Austria’s handsome but narratively messy “Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe,” with Maria Schrader at the helm. Lest anyone be lulled into thinking the war is a largely European concern, let’s not forget that 2016 U.S. productions didn’t neglect the global conflagration either, most notably Mel Gibson’s “Hacksaw Ridge” and Robert Zemeckis’ likely Oscar contender “Allied,” which opens Nov. 23.

When it comes to war though, it’s not all about the World War II, especially in East European cinema, which continues to examine more recent, local battle scars. Unsurprisingly, this is especially true for countries part of or the former Yugoslavia: Croatia has submitted “On the Other Side,” directed by Zrinko Ogresta, and Kosovo has debuting helmer Faton Bajraktari’s “Home Sweet Home.” Far more likely to make it at least through the first cut is Danis Tanovic’s finely lensed, narratively dense “Death in Sarajevo,” representing Bosnia and Herzegovina. In many ways a summation of the director’s thoughts on his country’s unhealed wounds, the film relies on a well-informed audience’s ability to navigate through the complex currents of 20th century Yugoslav history (while recognizing the satirical dig at media darling Bernard-Henri Lévy), and as such may be seen as too localized for the average Academy voter. Also focused on regional conflict is Georgia’s entry “House of Others,” by debuting director Rusudan Glurjidze, and we could add to the list Portugal’s “Letters From War,” directed by Ivo M. Ferreira, which deals with the nation’s colonial wars in Africa.

The enduring fascination adults have with teens also provides a small bloc among the European submissions: Bujar Alimani’s “Chrome,” from Albania, and Ivaylo Hristov’s “Losers” from Bulgaria fit neatly in this category, though perhaps the only one to stand a chance of making it beyond the initial selection is Iceland’s “Sparrows,” Rúnar Rúnarsson’s affecting drama that has been picking up awards everywhere from Chicago to San Sebastián. Yet what might be most notable about the 2016 submissions is that the films most likely to make it to the final leg defy straightforward classification.

There’s Pedro Almodóvar’s entry “Julieta,” which represents something of a return to form for the popular Spanish helmer whose oeuvre perhaps deserves a category of its own. It’s been 10 years since he was last in the running, with 2006’s “Volver,” and there’s a strong possibility that his latest will at least make the short list. Another name frequently appearing in the Oscar rollcall is Andrzej Wajda, whose “Afterimage” had its premiere in Toronto less than one month before the veteran director’s death at the age of 90. While it’s generally agreed “Afterimage” isn’t quite his finest, there’s a good chance the Academy will want to keep it on the nominee list, at least through the first cut, in tribute to the helmer’s important, historic place in Polish cinema.

Two dark horses among the European entries also have a chance of making it to the short list: Finland’s “The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki,” by debuting director Juho Kuosmanen, and Romania’s “Sieranevada,” by Cristi Puiu. The former was a surprise hit in Cannes, where it took home the Un Certain Regard prize and bowled over the critics with its potent blend of lyricism and punch. “The Happiest Day” is also one of three black & white European films in the running, testifying to monochrome’s niche vigor. “Sieranevada” may be a more difficult work to get through the vetting process, though its masterful visual fluidity and caustic yet affectionate examination of a family gathered together for a memorial meal deserves to be recognized in the same category as Puiu’s more widely celebrated “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu.” Still, at nearly three hours long, this uncompromising drama marbled with laugh-out-loud wit may be a tough sell to the Academy, much as it was inexplicably bypassed by the Cannes jury.

Equally ignored by the same jury, who were then subjected to an avalanche of scorn because of their blindness, was Maren Ade’s “Toni Erdmann,” the surprise hit of the Croisette that had everyone, including German colleagues, astonished that a Teutonic comedy could be so much fun. Only three German films have ever taken home the best foreign film Oscar, and none of them — “The Tin Drum,” “Nowhere in Africa,” and “The Lives of Others” — can remotely be called humorous. Notwithstanding its nearly three-hour running time, “Toni Erdmann” has one of the strongest chances of nabbing the golden statuette, provided Academy members remember that an intelligent comedy transcending national borders remains the most difficult kind of film to make.

There remains one movie which truly defies categorization, and that’s Paul Verhoeven’s extraordinary “Elle.” Obscenely labeled by some as a “rape-comedy” after its Cannes premiere, this brilliant portrait of a woman whose rape unlocks a host of contradictory emotions is arguably Verhoeven’s best film, and possibly the first one that can be called “feminist” without a trace of irony. Yes it’s funny at times, but never does it make light of the violation, which is brutal and disturbing. David Birke’s script, based on the novel by Philippe Djian, offers a thrillingly complex portrait of the main character, played to perfection by Isabelle Huppert who once again proves she’s not just one of the finest screen actresses of her generation, but of any generation. If Academy voters are smart, they’ll nominate Huppert for lead actress, and France will take home the foreign film award for the first time since, incredibly, 1992.

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