A conversation with two close friends a few weeks ago – just after the Academy Awards presentation this past February – made me realise yet again how often we miss the real characterisations in films. Some years ago I loved the 1982 film Sophie’s Choice, conveniently ignoring (or at least somehow not noticing) that the characterisations of Jews in that film were all, somehow, slanted and skewed. The two major characters – one played by Kevin Kline (an actor who is a personal favourite of mine) and a young woman who dates the young writer Stingo (Peter MacNicol) – both become victimisers, and the symbol of the Holocaust becomes Sophie (Meryl Streep, another favourite of mine), a non-Jewish Polish woman whose father was a fascist.
Beginning with the 1959 movie The Diary of Anne Frank, there have been 22 Oscar nominees that, in one way or another represented the Holocaust, and since Shelley Winters won for Best Supporting Actress in 1959, 20 of these movies garnered at least one Academy Award.
The all-time winner of Academy Awards was 1993’s Schindler’s List, with nine Oscars, including Best Picture. Other big winners: Cabaret (six in 1972), The Pianist (three in 2002) and Judgment at Nuremberg (two in 1961). Meryl Streep won her second Oscar for Sophie’s Choice, and “Adrian Brody and Shelley Winters are the only actors to have won Academy Awards for playing a Jewish character in a Holocaust-themed movie”.
So this year the much-cheered Ida won the best foreign film award, beating out the (in my opinion) much superior Leviathan, a contemporary Russian film that has captured the “moment” of a corrupt but empowered Russia that has seen an undeclared civil war in the Ukraine and a heightening of tensions throughout Europe.
In my review of Ida, I was highly critical, writing that I found the film “profoundly depressing and problematic” because “all of the film’s implicit conclusions about Jewish life in its aftermath of the Holocaust are negative.” I concluded that “the life decisions of the two key characters (Ida and aunt Wanda) indicate that the Holocaust has so damaged both of their lives that their only options are to turn away from being Jewish, each irrevocably in their own way.”
Writing in The New Yorker in May of last year, Richard Brody goes further, entitling his review “The Distasteful Vagueness of Ida”. Brody declares that Ida is a “pernicious fraud—an aesthetic one and a historical one.” Brody writes:
He is making a declaration: there were Jewish victims of the war in Poland—Jews who were killed by Nazis and, yes, even by Poles—but that Jews weren’t solely victims. Jews, too, were killers, including those who got their revenge on Poland by propelling themselves to power with the rise of Communism…. The evenhandedly editorializing accusations that Pawlikowski builds stealthily into the movie are repellent. Even as he nourishes the notion of collective or national guilt—and seeks to expiate it—with the movie’s ceremonial tone, Pawlikowski also insinuates that the victims were no angels, either, and that maybe some of them have something to atone for as well. “Ida” is, in effect, “12 Years a Slave” in which Solomon Northup shows up in the South, after the Civil War, as a carpetbagger. Ultimately, the movie legitimizes resentment of the very Jews who were murdered on Polish soil—even at the hands of Poles.
I have a hard time disagreeing with Brody. So here again is a Holocaust film lauded by “the Academy” – and presumably voted for many of the Jewish voters who are members. Did they really know what they were voting for? Or were they, like many others, taken in by the pseudo-historical black and white photography, and lulled into believing that Ida was a true representation of Polish-Jewish life in the early 1960s?