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Swiss Jewish Film Producer Behind Oscar Winning Movies

November 27, 1996
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During a 35-year career, Swiss producer Arthur Cohn has made only nine films and documentaries. Five of his works have won Academy Awards — a batting average no one in or out of Hollywood can even approach.

Cohn, the scion of an old Zionist family, thrives on the off- beat, intimate film, which he often nurses along for 10 or more years. When finally completed, his product is likely to be turned down by every distributor in sight — until it wins an Oscar.

His first documentary, "Sky Above, Mud Below," dealing with the tribal life of New Guinea natives, received an Academy Award in 1961.

His second Oscar, for best foreign film, came a decade later for "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis." The film has been restored and was re-released recently on its 25th anniversary.

"The Garden" struck out with the first nine distributors to whom it was offered, but that is above par for Cohn’s films.

His subsequent "Black and White in Color," an anti-war satire centering on French and Germans in Africa during World War I, was turned down by 15 distributors, and "Dangerous Moves," about a tense, politically tinged chess match, by 22.

Both films went on to win Oscars for best foreign films.

None of these obstacles have discouraged Cohn from adamantly pressing his personal visions.

"I am a perfectionist," he says. "I do not release a film until I can live with it. Otherwise I would rather not do anything. I do not make any concessions."

Cohn, a third-generation Swiss citizen, credits his outlook and success to his parents, "who passed on to me the roots of their beliefs and religion, and wings so I could fly out on my own and pursue my dreams."

His father, Marcus, was a respected lawyer and a leader of the Swiss religious Zionist movement. He settled in Israel in 1949, helped to write many of the basic laws of the new state, and served as Israel’s assistant attorney-general until his death in 1953.

The producer’s grandfather, Rabbi Arthur Cohn, served as the chief rabbi of Basel. He was a friend of Theodor Herzl and one of the few leaders in the Orthodox rabbinate to support the founder of modern Zionism.

It was because of this support, says Cohn, that Herzl chose Basel as the site of the first Zionist Congress in 1897.

Unlike many producers, whose main task is to line up money for a film, Cohn is involved in every step of the production and retains ultimate creative control over the editing process.

"I absolutely insist on having the final cut on any of my films," he says.

Vittorio De Sica directed "The Garden" as one of his last great films. The haunting, lyrical movie introduces the viewer to the pleasant, even languid, life of the Finzi-Continis, an aristocratic Jewish family long settled in a northern Italian provincial town.

Their enormous estate and tennis courts are surrounded by walls, which seem to seal the family off from the ugliness and slowly intensifying anti-Semitism of Mussolini’s fascists.

But ever so gradually, the noose tightens around the genteel lifestyle and romantic entanglements of the family. The daughter is barred from her university, the son from the public library, and anonymous phone calls disrupt the Passover Seder. The story ends in 1943 with the arrest and deportation of the entire clan, together with the town’s other Jews.

Cohn believes that "The Garden" succeeded despite its Holocaust undertones.

"Countless people in Asia and Africa saw this film as a romantic story, without violence and little sex," said Cohn during an interview at his Beverly Hills Hotel suite. "It is important that a new generation now has a chance to see it."

The restored film, currently showing in Los Angeles and New York, is set to be screened in 25 other U.S. cities by the end of the year.

Cohn’s artistic integrity has won him respect and influential friends in the movie industry, as well as the ritualistic accolade of a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame — the only foreign producer so honored.

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