Jeffrey Wells and Mark Harris
February 07, 1992 AT 05:00 AM EST

Every Oscar season comes with at least one temper-raising controversy, but this year the first fracas involves such issues as anti-Semitism, nationalism, and the new world order. Just weeks before the announcement of nominations, show biz and global politics have combined to turn the treatment of Agnieszka Holland’s Holocaust drama Europa Europa into an international incident.

Europa Europa, a German film distributed in the U.S. by Orion Classics, tells the true story of a Jewish teenager who survived World War II by ”passing” as a member of Hitler Youth. With U.S. ticket sales of $3.8 million — a remarkable sum for a subtitled movie — and awards from the Golden Globes and the New York Film Critics Circle, the movie was considered the front-runner for this year’s Best Foreign Film Oscar.

In fact, Europa Europa never stood a chance. The German Film Export Union, a jury authorized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to select one movie as Germany’s Best Foreign Film entry, rejected Europa Europa outright. Rather than put the film up for an Oscar, the Film Export jurors declined to nominate anything. Europa Europa, one panelist told the German magazine Der Spiegel, was ”junk”; another called the film ”embarrassing” and said it was rejected as Germany’s entry because its director and creative team are largely Polish.

That kind of language has spurred charges that Europa Europa is a victim of more than just differing tastes. Holland recently told a reporter that German unification, a backlash against Holocaust stories, and her own status as ”a Pole…a woman…and a Jew” were behind the board’s brusque dismissal of her film. ”Before the unification, there was some guilt about the genocide,” she said. ”But (now) Europa Europa is a victim of the same xenophobia and stupidity it depicted.” Adds Tom Bernard, vice president of Orion Classics: ”If you have a committee to nominate a film that represents your country, I’d imagine the government has a hand in selecting the members. I think the (reason) behind Europa Europa‘s rejection is rather obvious.” Several German filmmakers recently took out a trade ad chastising the German jurors for their decision.

But the Academy itself also has its critics — including some of its own members, who are weary of the one-film-per-country rules that put the selection of potential Best Foreign Film nominees entirely in the hands of foreign juries. (In 1982, the German jury also rejected the popular Das Boot, which went on to win six nominations in other categories.) ”The Academy ought to just say, ‘Look, there’s no entry from Germany this year, but we know why, and we’re going to nominate it anyway,”’ says producer Edward Lewis.

”It’s grotesque that the Academy doesn’t invite films to be considered, especially those that have been ignored by their country of origin,” agrees director Paul Bartel, a member of the Academy’s Foreign Language Film Committee. ”That’s putting bureaucratic considerations in front of art. We’re an academy, not a branch of the government.” But former Academy president Fay Kanin, who now heads the committee, says that the often-criticized Oscar rules should not be at issue. ”I regret that (Europa Europa) fell between the cracks,” she says. ”But that’s Germany’s business, not ours.”

For its part, Orion is trying to use the publicity for Europa Europa to win nominations in five other categories. In 1985, after Japan failed to submit Akira Kurosawa’s Ran, Orion waged a campaign that won the film an Oscar. To bolster Holland’s shot at a nomination for Best Director, the company has mailed 300 cassettes of Europa Europa to the directors in the Academy. But Orion’s Bernard insists that the damage is done. ”It was the clear favorite,” he says, ”and an Oscar for Best Foreign Film would have helped enormously in terms of its recognition and distribution. There’s no substitute for that.”

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