Among the 25 or so awards to be handed out at Sunday's Oscars will be the prize for documentary short. One of the less recognized categories at the annual ceremony, the doc short field this year contains a certain newsworthiness because of the inclusion of one nominee, "The Lady in Number 6," about Alice-Herz Sommer, a pianist who was known for years as the oldest living Holocaust survivor.
Herz-Sommer died several days ago at the age of 110, thrusting into the headlines a film and category few might have otherwise talked about.
It would be a fitting tribute for the film, which its subject is said to have watched and liked, to win an Oscar. “Lady” is an effective piece of filmmaking, moving but not sentimental, that skillfully compresses a complex life (Herz-Sommer's music steeled her and other concentration-camp victims against the atrocities around them) into a neat 38 minutes. Then again, doc short is a very solid field, and “Karama Has No Walls,” about the Yemeni uprising in 2011, or “Cavedigger,” about an artist who digs sculptures out of caves, would be a worthy winner too, as would the remaining nominees.
A triumph for “Lady,” though, can be expected to engender a kind of collective eye-roll. You've no doubt heard this objection before, from various tastemakers and industry members, sometimes though not necessarily younger, and it goes something like this: "Of course it won; it's a Holocaust movie,” the implication being that (A) the film did not win entirely on its merits, and (B) older voters — and let's not euphemize here: older Jewish voters — voted for a Holocaust movie simply because of its subject matter.
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Let’s set aside the fact that the Holocaust theory is, well, kind of not true these days. Movies like “Schindler’s List,” “The Pianist” and “Life Is Beautiful were Oscar favorites in the 1990s and early 2000s. But the last decade has hardly seen a great showering of Oscars on the subgenre. Outside of “The Counterfeiters” six years ago, a Holocaust-themed movie hasn’t won best foreign-language film — the category in which it’s most likely to compete — since “Life Is Beautiful” took home the prize last century. The ghetto-escape movie “In Darkness” lost to the worthy “A Separation” in 2012.
A Holocaust documentary, meanwhile, hasn’t won in that category since “Into the Arms of Strangers” took the honor 13 years ago. And there hasn’t been a best picture winner with a Holocaust story since “Schindler’s List” 20 years ago. Recent takes on the genre, which tend to offer a more assertive portrayal of Jews under the Nazis (such as "Munich" and "Inglourious Basterds") took home only smaller prizes, if any at all.
But the larger issue has nothing to do with whether the criticism is true. It’s whether it’s fair — or whether it diminishes not only the good sense of Oscar voters but the catastrophe itself.
There is something of a subtle anti-Semitism to the criticism and its suggestion that movies about the Holocaust come with a built-in head start (though it's actually not that subtle--implying that some voters are so fixated on a tragedy tied to their heritage they can't see past it to focus on a film’s merits. There may not be another group for whom it would be acceptable to toss off such an assumption. Would it be okay, for instance, to suggest that no right-thinking gay person could in good conscience cast a best picture vote for "Gravity" because it meant going against "Dallas Buyers Club"?)
Equally troubling is the criticism’s underpinning — basically that “there have been too many movies about the Holocaust, so let’s give the award to someone else" — making it seem as if a major tragedy is only allowed a certain number of good movies and, if by some chance a good one is created, it shouldn't be recognized.
This issue is particularly resonant this year because the debate is playing out, in the inverse, in Oscar’s biggest category. The Steve McQueen slavery drama, “12 Years a Slave,” a front-runner and very possibly the winner for best picture come Sunday — has been promoted by studio Fox Searchlight with the tag line “It’s time.” Too many years and too many winners without a movie about slavery. Too much injustice not recognized by Oscar voters It's time.
Some pundits have arched their eyebrows, and you can understand why. "12 Years a Slave" is a great film, and it deserves to be high on people's ballots. But the idea that a movie should win an Oscar simply because of its subject matter — or, more specifically, because of the dearth of films about that subject matter that came before — comes off as a little problematic. It reduces the Oscars to some kind of activist scorecard on which movies gain points by arriving in a niche few have visited and lose them by coming in a popular one (even though it could be argued that, if anything, it should be the reverse, since it’s generally harder to make a good film about an oft-trod topic).
Would "12 Years a Slave" be less deserving of an Oscar if "Amistad" had been more decorated? Or if "Roots" had been a theatrical release instead of a TV miniseries, and thus Oscar-eligible? It doesn’t improve a single frame of the film that there were not movies of its kind before, just as the film would not have been less great if there were.
When I asked McQueen several months ago about the comparison between Holocaust films and slavery films, and some pundits pointing out that they were happy to see more slavery films and could do with a few less Holocaust ones, he was quick to caution against equivalency. “It’s not a contest,” he said, adding that there could and should be meaningful films about both. A preponderance of Holocaust movies doesn't mean a new one isn't worthy, just as the greatness of “12 Years” doesn’t preclude more films about that tragic period. Films about any topic, and especially difficult ones, have neither a quota nor a statute of limitations. A powerful movie about an important subject is always right on time.
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