Is It Quiet on the Western Front? Oscars, AMPAS and the Rise of a European Bloc

Films from Europe have dominated this year’s Oscar nominations in a way that surprised many longtime observers

All Quiet on the Western Front The Woman King
"All Quiet on the Western Front," left, and "The Woman King" (Netflix/Sony Pictures)

Sharon Waxman

Sharon Waxman On the Business of Entertainment

The founder and editor of TheWrap’s take on life on the left coast, high culture, low culture and the business of entertainment and media. Waxman writes frequently on the inside doings of Hollywood, and is is also the author of two books, Rebels on the Back Lot and Loot

Last Tuesday, the Consul General of Ireland Marcella Smyth was delighted to welcome members of the film community to her home in Larchmont Village to celebrate the most Irish nominations in Oscar history: 16. 

“It’s 100 years since ‘Ulysses,’” Smyth told me in an interview, referring to the 20th century literary masterpiece by James Joyce. She added: “We are known as a nation of storytellers — one of the only stereotypes about us that is actually true.”

But there’s more to this picture than just a sudden rush of Irish talent in the Oscar race, which includes a stunning nine nominations for British-Irish director Martin McDonagh’s “The Banshees of Inisherin.” European films have dominated this year’s nominations in a way that surprised many longtime Oscar observers (including this one), especially as critically lauded movies such as “The Woman King” starring Viola Davis were entirely shut out.

Is this good? Is it bad? Or just an indifferent fact in a voting body that now comprises 23% international members and a huge voting bloc from Europe — 15% of the voters, according to the motion picture academy. 

Among the bigger surprises in this year’s nominations was nine for a German-language adaptation of a nearly century-old novel, “All Quiet on the Western Front,” which decries the horrors of World War I. The Netflix film, an epic two-hour-plus trek through mud, blood and violence, showed its strength among some voters in winning Best Film at the BAFTA awards on Sunday, and seven BAFTAs in all.

For the Oscars, the film was nominated for Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay and Cinematography among others, and notably it has not a single marquee actor. Nor did it spark significant discussion on op-ed pages or in critics’ round tables. 

Another surprise in Best Picture was the satirical “Triangle of Sadness,” a send-up of 21st century classism set on a luxury yacht and on a remote tropical island where the best-known actor was Woody Harrelson, who plays the hilariously anarchist captain of the ship. The film directed by Swedish filmmaker Ruben Ostland was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. It also didn’t dominate conversations in the run-up to the noms — although it did win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, which made it the fourth Palme winner in the last 12 years to go on to a Best Picture nomination. (One of those, “Parasite,” won the Oscar.)

Some have lamented the snubbing of Viola Davis from “The Woman King” and Danielle Deadwyler of “Till” as a backlash of some kind against the Academy’s drive to diversify — 34% of the Academy is now female, and 19% is from underrepresented ethnic and racial groups. 

But it seems more likely that the heavy European presence is driven by the rising prominence of the continent’s voting bloc, one that can reasonably be presumed to be mostly white. (The Academy doesn’t release further detail around race or ethnic figures.) That may play out in the voting as well.

Dolly De Leon in Triangle of Sadness (Neon)
“Triangle of Sadness,” nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. (Neon)

Since 2016, the year the Academy began its drive to grow and diversify its voting members, it’s notable that a huge portion of those new members came from outside the United States. 

For good reason: The largest pool of new, qualified members was… outside the U.S. The Academy told me that since 2015 there has been more than 10% growth in members based outside of the US.

In 2016, the Academy invited 683 new members, of whom 41% were international.

In recent years, an even larger percentage have been international, about half of the annual invitees: In 2020, 819 new members invited, 49% of them international. In 2021, with its diversity goals achieved, just 395 new members were invited, 53% of them international. Likewise in 2022, 50% of the 397 new members invited were from outside the U.S. 

Many would argue that growing the voting pool to reflect the global filmmaking community is a good thing, opening the most prestigious film award in the world to the full panoply of filmmaking talent.

We have been seeing the impact of the internationalization of the Academy in recent years, notably with the nomination and then Best Picture win of “Parasite” by Korean director Bong Joon-ho, and a broadening of the aperture of international films coming into the Best Picture category including Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s “Drive My Car” in 2022, and the Korean-American Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari” in 2021. 

This year, in addition to the strong showing of “All Quiet on the Western Front,” “The Banshees of Inisherin” and “Triangle of Sadness,” four of the five nominees in the Best International Feature Film category were European, coming from Germany, Ireland, Belgium and Poland. (The fifth nominee is from Argentina.) And in the Best Live Action Short category, all five nominees are European, with the Irish film, “An Irish Goodbye,” being the only one in English.

Some wonder if that might end up giving European artists a disproportionate slice of the nominations and, ultimately, wins. (It’s worth noting that streaming has made foreign-language films much more accessible to American audiences, long allergic to captions in movie theaters.)

That’s a conversation that is happening behind the scenes among Academy members who I’ve spoken to. Members of the documentary branch — of whom 150 members (about 23%) are estimated to be European — note that “A House Made of Splinters,” by Danish director Simon Lereng Wilmont, was a small film about a Ukrainian orphanage that might have nudged out “Descendant,” the acclaimed story of the last slave ship to come to America; or “Last Flight Home,” a moving vérité film about the final days of filmmaker Ondi Timoner’s father; or even “Bad Axe,” a much-awarded doc about an Asian-American family in rural Michigan facing ascendant Trumpism. 

No one will ever know for sure, but a certain tension is rising around the fact that of the nominated films in the Best Documentary category, three of them are European-based stories: “Navalny,” about the Russian political leader opposing Putin and targeted for assassination; “Fire of Love,” about two French volcanologists; and “A House Made of Splinters.” There’s no doubt that the Amsterdam-based IDFA festival in November is now a key stop on the nomination campaign trail for documentarians interested in getting a nom, even if Sundance is still the main launching pad for Oscar docs. (Four of the five nominees this year premiered there.)

Ultimately, the connection between nominated films and any particular voting group may hinge on the slimmest of threads — a few votes in a ranked choice system. That won’t be the case in the second phase, as the broader Academy votes on the winners. When it comes to that, we will see if the strong showing by European films this year translates into wins. 

Steve Pond contributed to this story.