WATCH: Two Holocaust-themed films make first Oscar cut

Two films about the Holocaust and its aftermath are among nine semifinalists in contention for best foreign-language film, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced Dec. 17.

Hungary’s “Son of Saul” and Germany’s “Labyrinth of Lies” are among critics’ favorites to garner an Oscar — indicating, once again, that the Shoah retains its grip on the minds of international filmmakers and the members of the academy who cast their votes.

Last year’s foreign-language Oscar went to the Polish film “Ida,” which followed the path of a devout young woman raised in a convent and about to take her vows as a nun. When she learns that her parents were Jews who perished in the Holocaust, Ida sets out to rediscover her roots.

Géza Röhrig as Saul in “Son of Saul” photos/courtesy sony pictures classics

Some 80 countries submitted entries this year; the five finalists will be announced on Jan. 14.

In Hungary’s “Son of Saul,” Saul Auslander is a member of the Sonder-kommando at Auschwitz-Birkenau, forced to cremate the bodies of fellow prisoners gassed by the Waffen SS. As he goes about his ghastly task, Saul thinks he recognizes his son among the bodies, unexpectedly clinging to life for a few extra minutes.

With the Sonderkommando men planning a rebellion, Saul vows to save the child’s body from the flames and find a rabbi to say Kaddish at a proper burial.

Saul is portrayed by Géza Röhrig , born in Budapest and founder of an under-ground punk band under Communist rule. He moved to New York, studied at a Hassidic yeshiva and graduated from the Conservative moment’s Jewish Theological Seminary.

“Son of Saul,” which won the Grand Prix at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, is also nominated for a Golden Globe Award. The movie opens in San Francisco on Jan. 15.

“Labyrinth of Lies” is set in the postwar 1950s, a time when many Germans preferred to deny or ignore the Holocaust. The film focuses on a young German prosecutor determined to bring the Nazis who ran Auschwitz to trial before a German court.

In historical retrospect, the subsequent trial is seen as a turning point in forcing Germans to face the reality of the Holocaust.

Saul in “Son of Saul” and Alexander Fehling as Johann Radmann in “Labyrinth of Lies”

Both the Israeli submission “Baba Joon,” a Farsi-language film, and the Palestinian movie “The Wanted 18” failed to make the Oscar cut. That left Jordan’s “Theeb,” set during World War I, when the Ottoman Empire ruled the Middle East, as the region’s only entry to place among the final nine.

Israel’s record in making the prestigious short list of the five finalists has been uneven, with bursts of recognition in some decades alternating with long dry spells.

Rounding out the list of nine semi-finalists this year are:

Belgium: “The Brand New Testament,” an irreverent satire in which everything in the Bible turns out to be wrong.

Colombia: “Embrace of the Serpent,” in which two scientists and a shaman search the Amazon for a rare sacred plant.

Denmark: “A War,” about a soldier who serves in Afghanistan and the impact on his family at home.

Finland: “The Fencer,” in which a fencing instructor evades the Soviet secret police.

France: “Mustang,” which explores the alternately joyful and repressed lives of five orphaned sisters growing up in a Turkish village.

Ireland: “Viva,” set in a Havana nightclub, about a gay son who struggles against his macho father.

The Academy Awards ceremony takes place Feb. 28 in Los Angeles.


Tom Tugend

JTA Los Angeles correspondent