For this year's Academy Awards, a record number of 32 countries competed for the five slots in the best foreign-language film category. One of those nominated is the Swiss entry, "Dangerous Moves," a drama about intrigue in chess and politics.
Now that it is among the final five--and has just won the European critics' prestigious Prix Delluc as well as the French Oscar for best first feature--some industry observers are saying that it may well walk away with top honors March 25.
The man behind "Dangerous Moves" is accustomed to bringing dark horses to American screens: Producer Arthur Cohn was also responsible for the making of such films as "The Garden of the Finzi Continis," "Black and White in Color" and "The Sky Above, the Mud Below." Although these titles might suggest a widly eclectic sensibility, they share something that the Swiss-based Cohn acknowledges: "Nobody expected these films to do well, but in fact they did very well indeed with critics and audiences. I make films which are unusual."
Another point that these films have in common: Although shot outside the United States, they became successes in Europe only after gathering acclaim in America, and inversion of the usual procedure.
Apart from the fact that "Dangerous Moves" is up for the Oscar, Cohn's film "The Final Solution" has just been selected to mark the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council's 40th-anniversary commemoration April 21 in Philadelphia. This will be the American premiere of the film, which writer Elie Wiesel called "the most impressive documentary every made on the Holocaust."
Whether it's choosing a difficult subject like the Nazi extermination of European Jews, picking a first-time director such as Jean-Jacques Annaud for "Black and White in Color" or Richard Dembo for "Dangerous Moves" or casting an unknown actress like Florinda Bolkan for "A Brief Vacation," Cohn is attracted to challenges. "As an independent producer, I won't make multimillion-dollar productions," he said during a recent trip to New York.
"I can't afford to go with the trends because I don't know if the trends will last as long as it takes me to make my films. So I search for projects that are out of the ordinary, enriching and apt to be remembered for a long time," he said. "I spend as much as two or three years on a project, from scripting to exhibition."
Admitting that he is a "perfectionist," Cohn explained that his involvement is less financial than creative: "I spend about 10% of my time raising the money, and at least 50% simply finding the right subject. Then I'm actively involved in writing and rewriting the script, as well as casting.
"The most important contributions of a producer are in scripting and editing. During the period of shooting, my input is limited because I feel that the director should be calling the shots," he continued in English occasionally mixed with French. "But after the film is shot, my experience has been useful in editing and scoring because I've learned much about a film's rhythm."
With "Dangerous Moves," Cohn's role transcended even these activities as he re-edited the film for international distribution. Starring Michel Piccoli, Liv Ullmann, Alexandre Arbatt and Leslie Caron, it plays with the political tensions behind international chess, the two champions being a young Soviet dissident (playing for the West) and an older Soviet chess master (who happens to be Jewish) representing Russia. (Arbatt, who plays the dissident--and who bears a striking resemblance to the young Nureyev--was actually a prominent Russian stage actor before he emigrated to Paris.)
The new version does indeed have a different rhythm, shifting more swiftly into the "moves" of politics and personality that render the chess game more of a background. Cohn said it attracted him because of its constant surprises: "The characters are different from what you expect them to be.
"You assume that the tension is between a 'bad' Russian and a 'good' dissident, but you end up sympathizing with the Russian because he is even more opposed to Russian politics, or the lack of freedom, than the dissident. Like all my films, the impact of 'Dangerous Moves' derives from the fact that the spectators can identify with the protagonists."
the 6-foot-2 producer--who studied international law before becoming a print and radio journalist as well as a foreign correspondent--travels a great deal and gets a sense of viewer tastes around the world. he serves as consultant to various European film companies.
His travels also permit him to discover new talent. In "The Sky Above," he introduced Pierre-Dominique Gaisseau; "Black and White in Color" marked the debut of Annaud (who would go on to make "Quest for Fire" and, currently, "The Name of the Rose"). Likewise, Richard Dembo--whose sole directing had been at the Paris Opera--made his first mark in film with "Dangerous Moves."
Finding new talent seems to complement Cohn's commitment to the masters--specifically the late Vittorio De Sica, whose last films before his death were produced by Cohn. He describes De Sica as "a father figure to me, and we had an incredible understanding, based on total trust. There was never a written contract regarding anything."
Although "The Garden of the Finze-continis" turned out to be an international hit, Cohn was warned that the film wouldn't work. "I was told it was too ethnic, and that we're used to seeing good Jews and bad Germans--whereas the Jews in 'Finzi-Continis' are not all good, and the Germans not all bad."
World War II continues to haunt Cohn, whose family was deeply involved in the establishment of the state of Israel. he survived the Holocaust in the relative safety of Switzerland. Consequently, he put together "Final Solution" because "it's important for young people to know and remember what happened, so that we are not doomed to live through it again. 'The Final Solution' shows that the Free World knew and did nothing. Its message is deceptively simple: The horror must never be reduced to a mere phenomenon, the insane act of a madman--or worse, to a statistic."
The film contains new footage from diverse sources--including German propaganda films and British newsreels--not shown in previous documentaries. Although it includes horrific archival images, Cohn also found contrapuntal footage of Jewish life in pre-Nazi Warsaw. He plans for "Final Solution" to be seen "worldwide as a TV special in order to have the greatest number of viewers."
His next film will probably be "The Foolish Immortals," from the novel by Paul Gallico: "It concerns a rich American woman a the turn of the century who doesn't like the idea that she has to die when God decides. In the course of many extraordinary adventures, she investigates possibilities to extend her life and thus make the decision herself about when to die."
Although the film rights to this novel were acquired 14 years ago and several scripts have been attempted, Cohn said he remained dissatisfied until now. The director and actors have not been set yet, but it is likely that this Cohn production will fulfill what he termed his three rules for producing:
"First, always make your film at authentic locations so that they are believable; never cast the film with actors just because they are good names, but pick them because they are right for the parts, and last, always follow your own instincts and conscience, and don't listen to well-meant advice."