Thursday, October 23, 2008

Film Review: The Counterfeiters

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Stefan Ruzowitzky's The Counterfeiters won the Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film earlier this year, and it's not hard to understand why. The two best foreign films of 2007--the year's two best films, period--were Julian Schnabel's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. Both were eliminated from contention in the foreign-film category by the Academy's arbitrary rules and convoluted nominating process. That left a weak field, and given the Academy's traditional fondness for movies about the Holocaust--it seems like one walks off with a major prize every year or so--The Counterfeiters had the inside track to the award. The film holds one's interest (although in a way one resents), but there's nothing especially artful or compelling about it. The Holocaust setting deserves something more accomplished.

The film tells the story of Operation Bernhard, a Nazi plot to destablize the British economy by flooding the country with fake currency. A team of Jewish artists, engravers, and printers was assembled at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Germany. Kept in relative comfort, they set out to solve the assorted logistical and practical problems involved in, at first, perfectly counterfeiting the British pound, and then the American dollar. It is estimated that the phony British currency they produced amounted to four times the value of the actual money in circulation, which made the effort the largest known counterfeiting operation in history.

Ruzowitsky begins the film after the war has ended, where we see his protagonist, Saloman Sorowitsch (Karl Marcovics), at a Monte Carlo gambling resort. He's carrying a briefcase full of banded cash with him, and he uses it to check into a luxury hotel and idle his time at the casino. He is revealed as a Jewish concentration-camp survivor after a woman he picks up notices the tattooed number on his arm. He then flashes back to his life in Berlin before the war, where he used his considerable artistic talents for counterfeiting and passport forgery. After being apprehended and sent to prison, he finds himself at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where he begins working with the other prisoners to successfully forge the pound and the dollar.

The film is never compelling on more than a melodramatic level. Ruzowitsky's sole means of generating narrative interest is by keeping one in dread of what may happen next. One is given the obligatory scenes demonstrating the guards' capacity for arbitrarily abusing and murdering the prisoners. Ruzowitsky also keeps one aware that once the prisoners succeed in counterfeiting the currency, they will have outlived their usefulness to the Nazis. They will be either be killed or returned to the general camp population, which could also mean their deaths. The difference between the camp commandant, who treats the Bernhard prisoners relatively humanely, and his second-in-command, a murdering sadist, is also exploited--one sits uneasily waiting for when the brute inevitably takes over the camp. And there's the prisoner who has tuberculosis--when will the guards discover his condition and kill him?--as well as the prisoner who becomes suicidal after he discovers his family was murdered at Auschwitz. The film prepares the viewer for one awful development after another, and the only questions are when they will take center stage.

Ruzowitsky does develop a narrative strand with possibilities for dramatic conflict. One of the prisoners, Burger (August Diehl), was an anti-Nazi agitator before being sent to the camps. He is sabotaging the efforts to counterfeit the dollar. He's an idealist with absolutist moral views, and Ruzowitsky presents him as a counterpoint to the pragmatic Sorowitsch, who feels little compunction in collaborating with the Nazis, as it means he will live another day, and it can create opportunities to help the other prisoners when they're in need. Burger's attitude, if left unchecked, could get them all killed. The film raises the question of whose behavior is the more truly moral, but it answers it too easily in Sorowitsch's favor. There's little sense of a potent right-against-right conflict between the two characters, and Ruzowitsky can't resist treating it in melodramatic terms: Will the Nazis become so frustrated with the failures that they kill all the prisoners, or will the prisoners relent and turn Burger in? It becomes just another opportunity to fill the audience with dread.

The conflict between Sorowitsch and Burger is also hampered by the film's inability to create any rapport between the audience and the two: one is always left on the outside looking in. Ruzowitsky clearly intends for Soroswitsch to be sympathetic--he's always shown helping the other prisoners, and he refuses on principle to snitch about Burger's sabotage--but the film never allows one to identify with him. Part of the problem is in the writing, but some of it lies with Karl Marcovics' performance--he's just too stoic to make one feel Sorowitsch's conflicts. One understands them intellectually, but the emotional resonance just isn't there. August Diehl is somewhat better--he effortlessly conveys Burger's fervor--but the script doesn't develop the character enough for him to give Burger any dimension beyond the first view of him.

The film is ultimately affectless, and Ruzowitsky's screenplay and direction never rise above mediocrity. One understands the Holocaust's appeal to filmmakers--it allows for a tense, thriller-like atmosphere, and the circumstances allow for moral questions that can occasionally be profound. But it also allows for a film to have an inflated aura of importance that the filmmaker doesn't justify. The appeal of The Counterfeiters is middlebrow, and rather disgracefully so. The Holocaust was a great human tragedy, and it should be treated with the utmost respect. It certainly shouldn't be grist for the mill of unimaginative filmmakers in their quest to win awards and impress people.

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