'Europa' at Center of Oscar Storm : Commentary: Debate over why the film won't be a foreign-language nominee reveals inequities of process.

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The current debate over writer-director Agnieszka Holland's "Europa Europa"--the German-French-Polish co-production that wasn't submitted for this year's best foreign-language Oscar--is like a turbulent sea swollen by many rivers. It's a debate that conceals other arguments, some spoken, some more secretive.

Chief among them is the mystery of why the German Export Film Union steadfastly refuses to submit a film that would have been the odds-on Oscar favorite: the winner, so far, of four major 1"best foreign-language film" prizes from American critics' groups.

The union's various explanations--it's not really a German film, it's not really good, it hasn't had a regular German run--seem shallow, especially in the wake of the strong Jan. 29 letter of support for "Europa Europa," from a group that seems a Who's Who of contemporary German cinema, including directors Volker Schlondorff, Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders and actresses Hanna Schygulla and Barbara Sukowa. The 30 signatories describe their own academy committee's decision as "painful" and their statements as "appalling."

If the German Export Film Union--recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as the authoritative body in determining Germany's best film of 1991--is so out of sync with most of Germany's world-class filmmakers, who exactly do they speak for?

But other questions linger. The export union's complaints that "Europa Europa" isn't purely German in its funding and artistic talent carries unsettling undercurrents. So does the fact that Agnieszka Holland is a Polish woman filmmaker with Jewish roots--and, ironically, Holland's 1985 "Angry Harvest" was one of the last two official German selections in the academy's final five.

Then there's the "controversial" content of "Europa Europa," based on the true-life experiences of Solomon Perel, a Polish Jewish teen-ager who survived World War II by masquerading as a German Gentile soldier. Throughout, he is buffeted by wildly improbable incidents, most of them true, all illustrating the chaotic fate of people under tyrannies.

He wears the mark of his racial identity, his circumcision. Constantly, he is in danger of exposure. For Holland, he is a sort of Candide--an innocent adrift in a crazily malignant world--and the mix of absurdity and danger probably helped make "Europa Europa" both a critical and audience favorite in the United States. It's a tense suspense story, an ironic romance and a truly black comedy--all driving toward a dark crisis of identity.

But this complexity may be part of what alienated the export union--particularly if, as director Percy Adlon says, they are more interested in "Americanized" German movies. That hints at the last problem raked up by this affair: the question of how best foreign-language film Oscars are selected in the first place.

For the past decade, the academy's foreign-language choices have been safe, unadventurous--not exactly predictable, but sometimes dubious. It would be hard to find many critics who feel that "To Begin Again" (Spain, 1982), "Dangerous Moves" (Switzerland, 1984) or "Journey of Hope" (Switzerland, 1990), all Oscar winners, were in the upper 25% of the past decade's major foreign films, much less the best.

The recent slant has been toward foreign-language films that are traditionally structured and made, far removed from any cutting edge. There are exceptions: A heavyweight like Ingmar Bergman ("Fanny and Alexander," Sweden, 1983), can still triumph. So can his old lead, Max von Sydow (in "Pelle the Conqueror," Denmark, 1988).

But, in retrospect, the glory years of the foreign-language film Oscar seem to be the late '50s and early '60s--and from 1947 to 1955, when it was a "special award." Back then, the academy honored "Shoeshine" and "The Bicycle Thief" (Italy, 1947 and '49), "Forbidden Games" (France, 1952), "Rashomon," "Gate of Hell" and "Samurai" (Japan, 1951, '54 and '55); all became recognized classics.

Federico Fellini's 1956 "La Strada" (Italy) won the first competitive Oscar, and he and Bergman dominated the awards through 1963. But by 1966 there was a softening: Claude Lelouch's frothy "A Man and a Woman"--a kind of TV commercial French "New Wave" romance, extremely popular in Los Angeles--was the winner, over both "The Battle of Algiers" and "Loves of a Blonde." Bergman's "Persona," Sweden's official selection and now considered one of the century's masterpieces, wasn't even among the final five nominees.

One can see a gradual shift toward the mood of the '80s. In the '70s, after a flurry that honored the Czech new wave and "Z," the awards went mostly to films by big-name directors: Truffaut, Bunuel, Fellini, De Sica and Kurosawa.

But by the beginning of the '80s, many star foreign-language filmmakers were nearing career's end, foreign-film distribution and exhibition were about to dry up. Worse, some influential American critics--besides being derelict in spotting the great new foreign filmmakers--were adopting a flippant, art-film-bashing attitude which reinforced the know-nothings who sneered at all subtitled movies.

The whole shift is best seen in the 1980 Academy Awards, when the foreign-language film Oscar went to the mediocre Soviet romantic comedy, "Moscow Does not Believe in Tears," a movie that somehow beat out Kurosawa's "Kagemusha," Szabo's "Confidence" and Truffaut's "The Last Metro." Director Vladimir Menshov's sweet-tempered trifle is so far from the highest 1980 standards of international, or Soviet, filmmaking that it's hard to comprehend the prize as anything but a tepid gesture at international good will.

In a way, that's what foreign-language film Oscars have sometimes seemed since: a kind of Hollywood branch of UNICEF. Good movies won after 1980--even a great one ("Fanny and Alexander")--but a sense of discovery or participation by the world filmmaking community is often missing.

That makes the "Europa Europa" affair even more ironic: Holland's movie fits all the more limiting '80s-'90s criteria. It's not disturbing in style or technique. It's a good story well told, with an attractive cast, a haunting score and, seemingly, all the progressive political sentiments academy voters often look for.

"Europa Europa" has some strong competition--Kieslowski's "The Double Life of Veronique," Kurosawa's "Rhapsody in August" and Jaco Van Dormael's "Toto the Hero" among them--but, all in all, it seems the ideal '90s Oscar pick in its category. Except for one lamentable fact: Because of the German Export Film Union, it currently has no category.

Is there a solution? For "Europa Europa," there might be. The academy could do one of several things:

* This one time, they could allow write-in votes for foreign films.

* They could give "Europa Europa" a special board of governors award, like the ones voted between 1947 and 1955.

* They could ignore the export union and, following the lead of the German filmmakers, designate "Europa Europa" as the German-language candidate. (Currently, there is no German nominee.)

* The individual branches this year could look at "Europa Europa" more seriously for their awards.

Those are temporary solutions. It's doubtful any will be taken. A better long-range plan--which would also have eliminated a similar faux pas in 1985, when the Japanese committee didn't nominate Kurosawa's "Ran"--might be this: Every year, the academy could retain, either through a special blue-ribbon committee or nominations open to the membership, up to three discretionary picks--only one to a country--in the foreign-language category. Those films would then simply be added to the list of official submissions.

This idea seems elegant and workable. It would bypass messes like the ones that broke over both "Europa Europa" and "Ran." It might eliminate complacency or arrogance in some of the foreign committees. It might revitalize interest among voters. But again, it's doubtful anyone will consider it. In any case, on March 30, when the Oscar show comes on, I'll have two sentimental favorites: "Thelma & Louise"--and the film that didn't get my vote on the critics' ballots, but should have gotten the academy's, "Europa Europa."

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