By SANDY COHEN
LOS ANGELES (AP) — ‘Tis the season to gather, be grateful for what we have and share what we can. But for cinephiles, it’s awards season, and that means dreary fare — particularly with a World War II or Holocaust focus. No fewer than six are set for release this holiday season.
In theaters now are “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” which tells the story of a forbidden friendship between the son of a Nazi officer and a Jewish boy imprisoned in a concentration camp; “The Reader,” which stars Kate Winslet as a former concentration-camp guard on trial years after the war; and “Adam Resurrected,” which follows a Holocaust survivor (Jeff Goldblum) living in a mental institution.
“Valkyrie,” which opens on Christmas day, stars Tom Cruise as a German officer who heads up a plan to kill Hitler. And two more Nazi-oriented films open on New Year’s Eve: “Defiance” stars Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber as brothers who battle the Nazis from a secret hideout in the woods, and “Good” features Viggo Mortensen as an academic and novelist reluctantly enticed into the SS fold after he’s approached to write some mild propaganda for the Nazi party.
In a recent interview, Cruise joked: “Go kill Hitler on Christmas!”
So why, during what’s supposed to be the cheeriest time of year, this abundance of stories from one of humanity’s darkest hours?
“Much of it is awards-driven,” said Paul Dergarabedian, president of Media By Numbers, which tracks box-office totals. “Downer movies come out this time of year as a reflection of the fact that people are vying for Oscars.”
Indeed, Holocaust-themed holiday releases have fared well with academy voters for decades. “Sophie’s Choice,” a December release in 1982, earned five Oscar nominations and a win for star Meryl Streep. “Schindler’s List” was nominated for 12 Oscars and won seven — including best picture — after its release in December of 1993. “The Pianist” opened two days after Christmas in 2002. It was nominated for seven Oscars and won three, including best actor for star Adrien Brody and best director for Roman Polanski.
“These movies take you on an emotional roller-coaster ride,” Dergarabedian said. “They’re powerful, moving, and Oscar loves that.”
The Holocaust and World War II are rich landscapes for exploring moral issues and human costs, and such stories resonate with filmmakers and awards voters alike, said Steve Pond, author of the 2005 book “The Big Show: High Times and Dirty Dealings Backstage at the Academy Awards.”
World War II-themed movies have been winning Oscars since the year after the war ended, Pond noted. In 1946, “The Best Years of Our Lives” won seven of the eight Oscars for which it was nominated, plus a special award given to supporting actor Harold Russell “for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans” by appearing in the film.
“The Holocaust is such an irredeemable monstrosity, you can’t get more extreme or more evil than that,” Pond said. “For a dramatist dealing in conflict, it’s sort of an irresistible topic to be drawn to.”
The current state of the world inspires continued interest in these themes, said Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
“Here we are, 63 years after Auschwitz, and we can’t open up a paper or read an article that doesn’t involve another episode of man’s inhumanity to man somewhere in the world: suicide bombings, Mumbai, Darfur,” he said. “The Holocaust is a ripe subject for writers and directors to present on the screen issues that resonate even today as we cross into 2009.”