Saturday, February 9, 2008

Money Matters

Even though I'm still outraged by the insanely obscure, unfair, and bewildering Foreign Film Oscar nominees this year, I feel a little more at ease after having actually seen one of them. It's called The Counterfeiters, from Austria, and it's worthy of its nomination. It's not the film's fault that the Academy suffered some sort of stroke during the selection process. It's a Holocaust film, which inherently has Oscar written all over it. I think it's pretty much assumed that a Holocaust film will garner all sorts of awards and nominations, even if it's not totally deserving. I know this might sound morbid, but I love Holocaust films. I think it's important to see these films, no matter how difficult or painful it may be to watch, because knowledge is power. Okay, so maybe that sounded like one of those "The More You Know" ads from NBC, but you get my point. Only by learning from the mistakes of the past can we prevent mistakes in the future. There we go, that sounded better.

The Counterfeiters, directed by Stefan Ruzowitsky, is not the best Holocaust film I've ever seen, but it's definitely one of the most unique. For one thing, it's only a little over an hour and half. I challenge you to find another Holocaust film that's even close to that running time. I don't think any Holocaust movie I've seen before clocks in under two hours, and they're usually much longer. I like that this film does that. Not every Holocaust film has to be this grand epic. I think there's a lot of expectations placed on films about the Holocaust. The most common complaint seems to be: "It's not serious enough." Serious enough compared to what? There's always this ambiguous standard these films are measured against. Look at Life is Beautiful. People thought that was positively blasphemous. A comedy about the Holocaust? How dare he! Black Book is a phenomenal film about the Holocaust, but it's also a fun thriller. Is that wrong? I'm sure people think so. I just don't buy that argument about something not being serious enough. It really ticks me off.

I don't think these films need to meet a certain seriousness quota. I certainly don't believe any of the films I've seen or heard about treat the subject matter flippantly. Maybe there are a few bad eggs, but I haven't come across them yet. Everyone is well aware of the subject's gravity. There's also always drama mixed in with the comedy or the "lighter" fare. I guess that's a big consideration when making a film about the Holocaust: Do the filmmakers have a moral responsibility to the subject matter? I don't have the answer to that. But I do have my opinion, and my opinion is that people need to chill out. Not every Holocaust film has to make you weep for days on end or feel like you've been punched in the stomach. We know how awful it was, and it's important to remember that, but sometimes it's healthy to laugh about something that's so atrocious. Laughter heals. As the great Preston Sturges wrote in Sullivan's Travels, "There's a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that that's all some people have?"

That being said, The Counterfeiters is not especially funny. There are some funny moments, but overall it's serious. Serious enough, even. What's different about it is that it's not really about the camps and the horror and the big picture. It focuses on a very small and, I think, a very unknown part of the Nazi war machine, and that's counterfeiting. The main character is Salomon Sorowitsch (a gaunt Karl Markovics), a notorious counterfeiter, the best around. He's a Jew, and when he finally gets busted for counterfeiting, he gets sent to a concentration camp. He spends years in this camp until he's transferred to a new one. At this camp, a massive counterfeiting operation is in effect. The Nazis are using Jews with previous related work experience (printers, graphic artists, etc.) to mass-produce phony currency. Salomon's reputation precedes him, and he is put in charge of quality control. The main goals are to successfully produce the pound and, ultimately, the dollar. This is Salomon's opportunity to prove he can manufacture the dollar, but his moral dilemma (and the dilemma for all of them) is that he's doing it to finance the Nazis' cause.

The Jews working on the counterfeiting are prized by the Nazis. The Nazis need them. They're treated much better than the rest of the inmates and are even segregated from them, only hearing cries and gunshots from a distance. Salomon is especially valuable because of his skill. He wants only to survive at first - "survival" is his mantra. But soon the moral implications weigh on him. The moral compass of this film is a young idealist named Burger (August Diehl). He wants to revolt. He can't stand the thought that their survival is helping the Nazis win, and he's sickened by the fact that they have it so good when others are being slaughtered in the same camp. There are other memorable characters, like Kolya (the sweet, young art student that Salomon takes under his wing), Herzog (a higher-ranking Nazi in charge of the camp with a totally bizarre wife), and Dr. Klinger (the Jews' doctor, with obligations to the Nazis, but himself a Jew).

This is a fascinating film, and it's based on a true story. Operation Bernhard, as this counterfeiting outfit is called, really happened. The cinematography is raw, gritty, and visceral. The acting is beyond excellent. For me, the stand-outs are Sebastian Urzendowsky as Kolya, August Diehl as Burger, and Karl Markovics as Salomon Sarowitsch. Urzendowsky is so moving, and Diehl brings such fire and passion to his performance. But I was most impressed with Markovics. It took me a little while to warm up to him. I wasn't sure what to make of him at first, because he's a very unconventional choice for a leading man. He's not easy to like. He's short, scrawny, and balding. His face is worn, oddly proportioned, and almost scary. He's just not a particularly good-looking guy. But I guess that's the Hollywood prejudice ingrained in me. Shame on me. But he grew on me, and I started to think he was kind of sexy. I still do. There's my confession du jour. I guess I'm the weird one now.

So, I'm not superficial, at least not more than my share, and his acting is what stunned me. He emits so much strength from his small frame. It's easy to believe these people would adopt him as their leader. He's powerful, frightening, and compelling, and he perfectly conveys the character's cunning mind and also his moral conflicts, all with the slightest facial expressions, minimal movements, and careful vocal delivery. It's a very subtle performance, but it's brilliant. I hope to see Karl Markovics in more films.

I had a great time watching this film and was very engaged. Okay, it took me about twenty minutes to really get into it, because it begins painfully slow. But it totally picked up, and the momentum was there until the end. The score is the most awful part of this film. It's a bizarre hodgepodge of different musical styles, and the songs are often totally incongruous with the mood or the scene. The music detracts from the story too much at times. Other than that, I really, really liked The Counterfeiters. A lot. But something is holding me back. I guess in the end, I think it's a forgettable film. Sure, I remember it now, but by the end of the year, it'll be buried in the depths of my memory. I like the short format, and I felt like I got to know the characters really well, so that wasn't what was lacking. It didn't need to be a second longer. I guess I just didn't connect with it emotionally.

And I'm sticking by what I said earlier - every Holocaust movie doesn't need to be a tearjerker. This has nothing to do with the Holocaust. Just as a film, any film, I'm not left feeling much after it. There's no resonance. I enjoyed it so much when I was watching it, but now I'm just like, "So what?" It's a really great film, don't get me wrong. I totally recommend it. But it falls short of excellence. It's sort of like the counterfeiters in the film. The Nazis first want to master the pound, and once they do that, their ultimate goal, the holy grail if you will, is the dollar. Well, The Counterfeiters definitely attains the pound, but it doesn't quite reach the dollar.

Rating: **** (out of 5)

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