Israeli filmmakers, supporters vow Oscar victory next year

los angeles | Disappointed but not downcast, Israeli filmmakers and their supporters vowed to come back strong next year after the country’s entry “Beaufort” lost out in the Oscar race for best foreign-language film.

“We have shown that Israel can make very good movies and we will prove it again next time,” Eli Eltonyo, one of “Beaufort’s” actors, told a cheering crowd of some 350 attending an Oscar party Feb. 24 in Hollywood.

An ebullient Yaakov Dayan, Israel’s consul general in Los Angeles, went further, shouting, “We’ll have a bigger party next year and we’ll take the Oscar, I promise you!”

“Beaufort” lost out to “The Counterfeiters,” which probes the moral dilemmas facing a special group of Jewish concentration camp inmates.

“Beaufort” depicts the windup of the first Lebanon War in 2000 not in the glory of a 1967 victory, but in an indecisive and exhaustive ending — a small Israeli unit evacuates the medieval Beaufort fortress. The film’s strength lies in presenting its protagonists not as super warriors but rather as young men who acknowledge and face their fears.

The euphoria and high hopes “Beaufort” triggered were explained partially by Israel’s current mood and the apparent validation of Israel’s new standing on the international film scene.

“We Israelis are going through our regular manic-depressive cycle,” explained Ron Leshem, who wrote the book the film is based on. “We’re hungry for good news.”

Of the five finalists for the foreign-language Oscar, it seemed clear that the final choice would come down to “Beaufort” and “The Counterfeiters.”The movie by Austrian filmmaker Stefan Ruzowitzky is based on one of the odder footnotes of World War II.

Some 100 Jews, all skilled engravers, photographers and one-time counterfeiters, were culled for “Operation Bernard” and given excellent treatment as long as they succeeded in turning out massive amounts of perfect imitation pounds and dollar bills to undermine the economies of Britain and the United States and to pay for the German war effort.

The tension in “The Counterfeiters” comes from the prisoners’ moral struggle on whether to collaborate with the Nazi scheme and gain at least temporary survival, or try to sabotage the operation at the cost of immediate death.

Even pro-Israel partisans who had seen “The Counterfeiters” acknowledged it was first class.

In his short acceptance speech, Ruzowitzky paid graceful tribute to the great Jewish movie directors of his country’s past. “There have been some great Austrian filmmakers working here, thinking of Billy Wilder, Fred Zinnemann, Otto Preminger,” he said. “Most of them had to leave my country because of the Nazis, so it sort of makes sense that the first Austrian movie to win an Oscar is about the Nazis’ crimes.”

In an earlier interview with JTA, Ruzowitzky went further.

“My grandparents on both sides were Nazis, or Nazi sympathizers, so I felt a special responsibility to deal with the Holocaust era,” he said. “I felt an equal responsibility not to exercise moral judgment on the Jews who collaborated in Operation Bernard.”

There was some solace in the success of Jewish creative talent at the 80th Academy Awards. Brothers Joel and Ethan Coen were the big winners of the evening, capturing three Oscars for best picture, directing and adapted screenplay for their gritty contemporary Western, “No Country for Old Men.”

Britain’s Daniel Day-Lewis took acting honors as the greedy oil prospector in “There Will Be Blood.” Day-Lewis is the son of Jewish actress Jill Balcon.

The evening’s host, Jon Stewart, characteristically opened the ceremonies with a Jewish gag, noting that the Oscar contending film “Atonement” caught “the raw passion and sexuality of Yom Kippur.”

When the remark was greeted with applause, Stewart quipped, “Now we know where the Jews are in the audience.”

Jewish Oscars

Tom Tugend

JTA Los Angeles correspondent