Oscar: Best International Feature Film – Central Europe

First Part – East Asian Countries

Second Part – South Asian Countries

Third Part – Past-Soviet Countries

Fourth Part –  Scandinavian and Baltic Countries

Austria

 (“What We Wanted” (“Was wir wollten”

Directed by  Ulrike Kofler

Available at Netflix.

The Austrian submission is available on Netflix since November, but if you’ve not heard about it, there’s a good reason for it. “What We Wanted” is the weakest film among the submissions that available on Netflix (there’re about ten of them, depends on your location). Alice and Niklas are a couple whose biggest wish is to have a child of their own. After several failed fertility treatments, they decide to go on a holiday in Sardinia to clear their minds. They meet a young family with two kids that seem to have everything they ever wished for. But appearances can be deceiving…

Indifference. “Indifference” would be the best word to describe what I’ve felt during and after watching “What We Wanted”. Ulrike Kofler failed in creating compelling and deep characters. Most of her script moves are transparent and feel functional (like placing Alice and Niklas next to an unhappy family with the kids). It’s very superficial and generic. 

Rita Vazilovix, the casting director (in case you were wondering, I checked IMDB), is also to blame for the failure of “What We Wanted”. Firstly, Lavinia Wilson (Alice) and Elyas M’Barek (Niclas) just do not look like a couple,  a flip-flop and the elegant shoe have more chemistry than those two. But even the casting of the secondary characters lacks thinking outside the box and brings the usual “beautiful” family as a mirror to the main.

Chances for Oscars: None.

Czech Republic

“Charlatan” (“Šarlatán”)

Directed by Agnieszka Holland

Available on DVD and a very few streaming as services as part of awards season.

Agnieszka Holland (“Europe, Europa”, “In Darkness) is one of the most respectable directors in this year’s competition. This time she chose to bring to the screen the story of Jan Mikolasek, a herbalist who was persecuted by communist authorities. “Charlatan” is his biopic from being an apprentice as a boy to his adult life in which he becomes a world-famous healer and begins a long-term relationship with his assistant (male).

As noted, there are two plotlines in “Charlatan”; the first is about a genius holistic doctor or perhaps a crook who can ostensibly detect diseases by a single glance at the patient’s urine. Agnieszka Holland skillfully manages to put together a complex character leaving the above question throughout most of the film. The editing that jumps between his youth and the present builds the film’s tension and leaves the viewer bound to the screen. The Soviet persecution doesn’t feel like anti-communist propaganda but an integral part of the story.

But then came the second plotline about Mikolasek’s life as a homosexual in a closet that at the time was a criminal offense. And how would I put it gently? It is generic, boring, unreliable, and feels scripted to add romance motive to the protagonist’s life. 

Chances for Oscar: Moderate

Many predict Agnieszka Holland to play in favor of the film and push “Charlatan” into the shortlist.

Was the choice right?:  Maybe

If Czech were bold enough, they would have chosen “Caught in the Net”, a documentary about pedophilia in the internet, which become one of my best ten films of 2020. But on the other hand, this year is full of high-profile documentaries, and it could have been one too many. Anyway, I was glad they didn’t choose “Shadow Country”, a dull b/w drama about a village on the Czech-Austrian border and its occupation by Nazis and Soviets. Having too many characters and events led it to be poorly developed and hard to follow or empathize with. Also, the way “Shadow Country” depicts history left me somehow frustrated, saying the less. If I had not been familiar with the Nazi atrocities, I would have thought they’re not so bad, while the immediate communist regime is shown in all its violent and mean form.

Germany

 “And Tomorrow the Entire World” (“Und morgen die ganze Welt”)”

Directed by Julia von Heinz

Germany is an Oscar superpower. Although their last win was 14 years ago (“The Lives of Others”), but in the last decade, Germany has been nominated twice (“Toni Erdmann” and “Never Look Away”) and four times managed to make to the shortlist (“Pina”, “Two  Lives”, “Labyrinth of Lies” and “In the Fade”). In the hope to continue the successful run, the Germans chose “And Tomorrow the Entire World” about a young law student who joins Antifa (a radical left-wing organization). The film made its debut at the prestigious Venice Film Festival..

I was very skeptical about “And Tomorrow The Entire World” long before watching it, a film made by a left-wing supporter and former member of a terrorist group. I should admit that it’s a highly crafted and acted film with well-built tension, showing a character who slowly goes from an innocent and idealistic girl to a violent supporter to achieve those ideals. 

My problem with “And Tomorrow The Entire World” has deeper roots with the ideas it tries to convey, legalization of left-wing violence, as it hints at the state’s collaboration with Neo-Nazis. It doesn’t show the real danger behind far left-wing ideas and whitewashing them by showing the threat of Neo-Nazis instead and how the left organizations are the only ones capable of stopping them.

Chances for Oscar: I genuinely hope that none, but it’s a German entry, so who knows.

Was the choice right?: Hell, no!

Germany had at least three-four films that would have been better contenders in quality and Oscars chances.  How could they choose “And Tomorrow the Entire World” over the spectacular “Undine” (another film in my Top 10 Films of 2020)? 

But most had expected Germany to submit “When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit” about a Jewish girl who has to flee together with her family from country to country after the rise of Nazism in Germany. It’s the new feature by Caroline Link, who has already won Oscar for “Nowhere in Africa” about twenty years ago. That film was about a Jewish film taking refuge in Kenya, at least this time, her characters don’t need to run this far. Jokes aside, “When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit” is a well-made film, but it doesn’t stand out in anything, and with several stronger Holocaust dramas in the competition (about one of them you can read below), it would not make far anyway. 

Hungary

“”Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time” (“Felkészülés meghatározatlan ideig tartó együttlétre”)

Directed by Lili Horvát

Available through several virtual cinemas and on Vimeo at Canada

One of the strongest competitors for the Best Original Title award in the Best International Feature race. Márta leaves her shining American career as a neurosurgeon behind and returns to Budapest for the love of her life, Janos, also a well-known doctor. She arrives at the meeting point, but in vain, he does not show up. When she finally finds him, the man claims he has never seen her before.

Besides the exceptional title, “Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time” is a beautiful love story that tests its limits and willingness to sacrifice for it. The film opens with Márta waiting for Janos at the Liberty Bridge, and the audience does not know if that meeting in the US took place or whether Márta has imagined it. Horvát manages to build a romantic mystery in which the main protagonist’s sanity is tested moment by moment. Natasa Stork is excellent in the role of Márta, and her determination to be with the man she loves is captivating.

Unfortunately, the film’s ending is disappointing, especially its climax, which is the only one in the film that felt shot rashly and looked badly and recklessly with an unimaginative monologue lacking any subtext… Despite this, definitely worth watching!

Chances for Oscar: Moderate

The film is nominated for Independent Spirit Awards, it doesn’t mean a lot but puts the Hungarian film on the radar.

Poland

“Never Gonna Snow Again” (“Śniegu już nigdy nie będzie”)”

Directed by Małgorzata Szumowska and Michał Englert

Zenia, a Ukrainian immigrant with hypnosis powers (apparently received from radiation at Chernobyl), gets a work visa in Poland as a masseur. He soon becomes a guru with affluent community members, who mostly feel loneliness and sadness.  Zenia’s grounded spirituality, apparent healing powers, and broad shoulders make him an object of lust for many of the lost souls in the community.

“Never Gonna Snow Again” is a dramedy with science fiction elements, urban fantasy, and brilliant political satire. The story of a foreigner who comes into a rich society and exposes its ugly face is not new to the screen, but the Polish film gives it an original breath. The unusual artistic design with houses that look as if they have been copied from each other and their occupants who see no one but themselves even though they repeatedly declare the need for Zenia, but never takes an interest in him. Małgorzata Szumowska makes the fullest of the comic and absurd situations she creates. Just as Zenia hypnotizes his clients to free them from their worries, so too do the pair of Polish directors do with their audience with the help of the beautiful camera work of Michał Englert.

Chances for Oscar: Fair

Slovakia

“The Auschwitz Report” (“Správa”)”

Directed by Peter Bebjak

If you have not guessed, Slovakia has submitted a Holocaust drama. Based on Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler’s true story, who plan to escape from the extermination camp to tell the world about what is going on in Auschwitz, hoping that the Allies would destroy it.  

A powerful  Holocaust drama that shakes you off with the help of brilliant cinematography and lighting while showing very little of actual atrocities. Bebjak successfully put together two different worlds, one inside the camp and one outside it. In doing so, the “Auschwitz Report” joins a series of highly respected Holocaust films (such as “Son of Saul”) that try to convey as much as possible the concentration camp experience with cinematic tools.

The outside of the camp scenes are slightly weaker, but it still manages to transcend with a strong message. Personally, the attempt to compare the Holocaust with the statements of nowadays’ right-wing politicians and their treatment of immigrants/refugees was a huge disappointment after such a film.

Chances for Oscar: Holocaust films and Oscar are almost synonyms, so Slovakian can definitely hope for at least a spot in the shortlist.

On the other hand, Slovakia has already submitted Holocaust-themed films in the past without success, “The Auschwitz Report” has not been screened anywhere (which means its buzz is not so big), and there’s another film that takes place in a concentration camp during WW2 (Serbian “Dara from Jasenovac”). 

Was the choice right: Yes

Probably, the Slovakian 2nd option was Ivan Ostrochovský’s blunt b/w “Servants” about two theological seminary students who fall victims in the shadow games of the church, secret services, and resistance in totalitarian Czechoslovakia. Too many genres make the film scattered, and the non-linear editing is confusing instead of building the tense. The b/w cinematography is beautiful as I felt it is an artificial choice.

Switzerland

“My Little Sister”  (“Schwesterlein)

Directed by Stéphanie Chuat and Véronique Reymond

Berlin playwright Lisa follows her husband Martin to Switzerland, where he manages a private school. However, she has not abandoned her theatrical aspirations, and she misses mostly her twin brother Sven, a famous actor. When his leukemia returns, beginning to wreak havoc on his health, she decides she must return to her roots, which has significant consequences for her relationship.

“My Little Sister” is not a bad film but just pretty mediocre. Nina Hoss and Lars Eidinger give two outstanding acting performances. However, the generic script turns the Swiss submission into nothing more than another film about a character who deals with terminal cancer with almost every stigma that comes to mind and makes it forgettable. 

Chances for Oscar: Low.

Although the reception is mixed and the ratings are severely low (compared to other contenders), it has its fans and predicts it would manage to come through.

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