The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences received a ton of criticism when they announced their Academy Award nominees. Critics pointed out that the nominations were overwhelmingly white and male. They argued that this points to a larger problem in popular filmmaking, which tends to exclude so-called minority stories.
Of course one minority group has long been associated with Hollywood—by Jews and anti-Semites alike. (Notice how no one ever complains that the Hindus control Bollywood?) But at first glance, this year’s Oscars don’t seem very Jewish. Not for an event dubbed “the Jewish Olympics,” and not compared to last year, when two of the biggest films featured Jewish protagonists.
But any Jew worth her salt (or should that be schmaltz?) can unearth our harder to find Jewish connections. So Jspace is proud to present our definitive Jewish guide to the 2015 Oscars.
Benedict Cumberbatch is so gentile it’s almost shocking a Jew didn’t conceive him, like, or indeed to the tune of, “White Christmas.” But “The Imitation Game,” for which he is nominated for best actor, has significant Jewish angles although it’s the tale of a non-Jewish mathematical genius from Cambridge University, Alan Turing, and his efforts to crack Nazi codes in the bucolic British countryside. Perhaps it’s not shocking that the film’s producers are Jews (the clues are there in “film” and “producers”) but you might be surprised to learn just how many Jews were involved in the film’s remarkable true story.
But let’s start with those producers for they’ll be the ones on stage should the film win its best picture nomination. It would be quite an achievement for Ido Ostrowsky and his equally Jewish producing partner Nora Grossman, both first-time producers in their thirties, who partnered with Teddy Schwarzman, son of billionaire Jewish hedge fund titan Stephen Schwarzman and his presumably not-Jewish wife, Christine.
Grossman and Ostrowsky were drawn to Turing’s story as a tale of a brilliant outsider forced to work with others to win the war against German evil. Their film portrays six code-breakers, two of whom—Jack Good and Peter Hilton—were Jewish. Meanwhile a third, the hero Turing, publicly supported Jewish refugees’ asylum in Britain, and even personally sponsored one Jew fleeing Nazi Germany.
The film takes place at Bletchley Park, an estate about fifty miles northwest of London that was once the home of a prominent British Jewish financier. Before the British government bought Bletchley, it belonged to Sir Herbert Samuel Leon, once a member of the British parliament, and his wife Lady Fanny Leon. Their coat of arms remains on the main entrance to the building that became a center of British intelligence.
As British Jewish historian Martin Sugarman has painstakingly pointed out, among the 7,000-8,000 staff working at Bletchley during the war were perhaps 200-300 Jews. There were certainly enough Jews for a minyan and the new residents formed Bletchley Hebrew Congregation during the war (the shul closed in the late 1940s).
“The Imitation Game” features two Jewish characters. Jack Good, born Isidore Jacob Gudak in Manchester, was Alan Turing’s main statistical assistant and a scholar of mathematics at Cambridge University. Londoner Peter Hilton was only 21 when he left Oxford University for code-breaking at Bletchley. After the war he became a professor of mathematics, later settling in the United States where he died in 2010.
The British “Jewish Chronicle” reported that among the less prominent Jews at Bletchley were a number of young women. Anita and Muriel Bogush were sisters from London. After their family left the capital for Bletchley, 14-year-old Muriel became the youngest girl working at the base, where she copied German messages before sending them on to decoders. “I met quite a few [Jews] there,” she said. “Very clever men, all from Cambridge. They used to come have Friday night supper with us.”
Meanwhile Ruth Bourne from Birmingham found that her top-secret work frustrated her mother. “We had a very small Jewish community and everyone knew everything,” Bourne told “the JC.” “I remember she complained to one of her friends: ‘I don’t know what she does, she won’t tell me’.” Decades later Bourne recalled that “my mum used to say: ‘All this secrecy. You can tell me; I’m your mother.’ I thought: ‘Yes, I can tell my mum; then it’ll be all over Birmingham in five minutes.’”
Fortunately, Bourne held firm in the face of maternal pressure, the highly sensitive work at Bletchley remained top secret, and the Nazis were defeated. Perhaps “the imitation Game” would have been a quite different story had Mrs. Bourne of Birmingham found out.
The Polish film “Ida,” nominated for best foreign film, is about finding out a big secret. Set in the Communist Poland of the early 1960s, and so-written by (not Jewish) English playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz, the film’s protagonist, a nun named Anna, learns her real name is Ida and she Jewish daughter of parents murdered by the Poles that hid them.
Another foreign language nominee is “Wild Tales” by Argentinian Jewish director Damian Szifron. The film comprises six stand-alone shorts written by Szifron, one of which includes a Jewish wedding.
The other Jewish nominees include another Latin American Jew, Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki for “Birdman”; Patricia Arquette for best supporting actress in “Boyhood”; “Foxcatcher” director Bennett Miller and the film’s writers, E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, for best original screenplay.
But perhaps the most Jewish film among this year’s nominations has zero Jewish nominees and no explicitly Jewish characters. (Although it does feature Jeff Goldblum and was produced by Scott Rudin.) With nine Oscar nominations, Grand Hotel Budapest has more than any other film. And at the end of the Wes Anderson movie, the first name on the credits is not the filmmaker’s or Scott Rudin or any other producer; instead it simply says that the film was “inspired by Stefan Zweig,” an Austrian Jewish writer who has been dead for over 70 years.
Anderson fell in love with the writings of Zweig, which give the film its aesthetic and sensibility. Born in Vienna in 1881, Zweig was a novelist, biographer and man of letters. In the film’s early publicity events, Anderson repeatedly described how, “I stole from Stefan Zweig.”
After the rise of Hitler and Nazism, Zweig fled his beloved Vienna first to the UK, then to the US, and finally to Brazil. Not long after arriving in there, however, he could take no more. The world he loved and had been part of was no more; his refined Europe of culture had become engulfed in the most barbarous and murderous flames. So Zweig wrote a last note, addressed to his friends: “May it be granted them yet to see the dawn after the long night! I, all too impatient, go on before.” Then he and his wife lay down on bed, took an overdose of barbiturates and died holding hands on February 22, 1942.
Zweig called his autobiography “The World of Yesterday,” and this could easily serve as the title for “Grand Hotel Budapest” too. The film, which features Nazi-like villains, is suffused with a wistfulness and longing for a vanished world, a destroyed culture. “Nine-tenths of what the world celebrated as Viennese culture in the nineteenth century,” Zweig wrote, “was promoted, nourished, or even created by Viennese Jewry.” This once-great community, in a once-great city, was forced into exile and to its death.
Yet as “Grand Hotel Budapest” attests, Stefan Zweig is still read—as are Arthur Schnitzler, Peter Altenberg, Elias Canetti, Karl Kraus and the great Joseph Roth. In the arts and sciences, Austrian Jews not only outlived Nazism but live on today—and there is no greater award possible.