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‘Ida’ Wins: The Count Is Now 20 Out of 23

Pawel Pawlikowski’s Holocaust film takes home an Academy Award

J. Hoberman
February 23, 2015
Ida/Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) and Wanda (Agata Kulesza) in 'Ida.' (Courtesy of Music Box Films)
Ida/Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) and Wanda (Agata Kulesza) in ‘Ida.’ (Courtesy of Music Box Films)

“There’s no business like Shoah business” was a bitter pun I first heard in the late 1970s, working as intern at YIVO, an institution then primarily staffed by Holocaust survivors and their children. To some extent, Hollywood has agreed. 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.

Schindler’s List (1993) is the all-time champion, winning nine Oscars, including Best Picture, in 1993, but Cabaret won six in 1972, The Pianist won three in 2002, and Judgment at Nuremberg won two in 1961, while in a paroxysm of unexpected hipness, the Academy gave the award for Best Original Screenplay to The Producers (1982). Meryl Streep won her second Oscar for Sophie’s Choice (1982) in which she played a Polish victim. Adrian Brody and Shelley Winters are the only actors to have won Academy Awards for playing a Jewish character in a Holocaust-themed movie, although Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz received Oscars for their respective roles as an SS guard and an SS commandant in The Reader (2008) and Inglorious Basterds (2009).

Six documentaries have received Oscars: Genocide (1981), Hotel Terminus (1989), Anne Frank Remembered (1995), The Long Way Home (1997), The Last Days (1998), and Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport (2000). So have four foreign films: the Czech Shop on Main Street (1965), two Italian films, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1971) and Life Is Beautiful (1998), and the Austrian-German co-production, The Counterfeiters (2007). There have also been three losers: Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo’s Kapo (1960) failed, and Agnieska Holland was twice denied twice, for Angry Harvest (1985) and In Darkness (2011). Fun fact: Both directors were the children of Jews. Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida—the story of a Jewish nun in post-Holocaust Poland—brings home the bacon.

J. Hoberman was the longtime Village Voice film critic. He is the author, co-author, or editor of 12 books, including Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds and, with Jeffrey Shandler, Entertaining America: Jews, Movies, and Broadcasting.