Saturday, April 26, 2008

The Counterfeiters (2007, Stefan Ruzowitzky)

I hate to be one of those writers who makes snarky comments about how the Academy's Foreign Language branch can't resist Holocaust movies, but movies like The Counterfeiters just make it so damned easy. The film takes as its inspiration a fascinating footnote to World War II- the Third Reich's attempts to counterfeit American dollars and British pounds by enlisting Jewish prisoners- but unfortunately it's not quite sure how to handle the story. There's an uneasy mix between the Holocaust aspect of the film and the moral quandary at its center. The film attempts to ask the question of whether it's better to survive in the face of evil or to risk your lives to try to bring it down. However, in its attempts to address the question, the film becomes curiously cold, and once the counterfeiters begin their work, there seems to be very little in the way of a serious threat to their lives. A lot of this is inherent in the story itself- the counterfeiters are isolated from the rest of the prisoners and made to feel safe, all the better to do their work. Yet the film gives almost no sense of the world outside their comfortable little world, aside from a few glimpsed or overhead instances. I can imagine a more rigorous filmmaker making this story work, but Ruzowitzky isn't inspired or intellectual enough to really pull it off. As a result, the film's eventual solution to its question is a fairly uncompelling compromise, which finds protagonist Salomon Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics) cooperating with the Reich as long as he can and then sticking it to them after he thinks he can get away with it. In addition, the story turns into a strange bit of hagiography for the character of Adolf Berger (August Diehl), who wrote the novel on which the film is based and is painted as the story's true hero, having resisted the Reich from the beginning and whose efforts to delay the production of counterfeit dollars helped- in the view of the film- to cripple the Reich economically and led to their defeat. To me, that explanation feels too tidy, and if there's one thing a movie like this really shouldn't be, it's tidy. I sort of respect what the film is going for, but for me it's a near-miss. Rating: 5 out of 10.

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