***/**** Image A Sound A- Extras B
starring Karl Markovics, August Diehl, Devid Striesow, Dolores Chaplin
screenplay by Stefan Ruzowitzky, based on the book by Adolf Burger
directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky
by Bryant Frazer This year's winner of the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, The Counterfeiters (Die Fälscher) is defined in equal terms by what it is and what it isn't. It is a Holocaust survivor's yarn told with a certain playfulness and no lack of moral consideration, but it is not really a concentration-camp movie; mostly, it feels like a prison caper yarn that happens to take place in Sachsenhausen. The film's weight comes from the things we know about but cannot see within the frame: those haunting images of emaciated Jews, the walking-dead stares of the prisoners consigned to the gas chambers and crematoria, the tragedy of systematic genocide.
Director Stefan Ruzowitzky found his curiously distanced approach to these events in the memoirs of Adolf Burger, a Jewish prisoner of the Nazis who survived his internment because his skills as a typographer made him valuable to his captors--Burger was drafted to join a team of prisoners counterfeiting English pound notes in exchange for decent treatment in the camp. (The Nazi war effort included a plan to destabilize the British economy by flooding it with phoney money.) Thus Ruzowitzky is able to examine the Holocaust not through the horror of its details, but in terms of survivors' guilt; is it a winning compromise if you sell your soul in order to save your life?
In the filmed version of events, Burger is the most conflicted participant in the scheme. He goes so far as to sabotage the currency-making process (over the objections of his terrified comrades), casting him as the hero of the piece. (Unsurprisingly, Burger himself approved every draft of the screenplay.) Yet he's not the protagonist of the story, probably because Ruzowitzky wanted to zero in on a more frankly self-interested character. So the film is book-ended with scenes of the fictionalized Salomon Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics) after the war, dealing with his conscience at a beachside resort in Monaco. In flashback, we learn about the events that led him there. Before the war, Sol was a noted forger of passports for desperate Jews. During the war, he became a prisoner who curried favour with his captors first by exchanging his paintings for servings of bread and salami, and eventually by leading said counterfeiting operation in exchange for survival.
The flashback structure gives extra shape not only to his character, but also to the fim's structure--it preserves a kind of symmetry in the narrative that would be unbalanced if the stuff at Monaco were appended as a coda, though it also defuses what could have been a source of tension in the body of the film, namely the question of whether Sol would make it out of the camp alive. Ruzowitzky focuses instead on what's going on inside his head at every turn, and that strategy benefits from the peculiar expressiveness of the actor's features. Markovics has a blue-eyed, teardrop-shaped face with sad, sloping features and a sleepy, unbalanced gaze that suggests, in the latter part of the film, the type of psychological damage Sorowitsch has suffered.
"I am me, and the others are the others," Sol says early on, as a way of declaring the solipsism he hopes will function as insulation from ethical considerations. Later, he justifies his selfishness in the name of pride: "I won't give the Nazis the pleasure of being ashamed I'm still alive." He doesn't have a real moral awakening until a critical scene in The Counterfeiters where a Nazi officer pisses all over him both literally and figuratively--and to his great credit, Markovics doesn't oversell the obvious transition. To at least some degree, he remains a cipher until the quietly despairing final scenes.
Ruzowitzky's directorial style may be a bit too facile for the material. This is an entertaining film and not a particularly troubling one, which may be by design. But it's pretty obvious where the film is heading in any given scene, and there's an easy predictability to the script that makes its more transparently manipulative scenes fall a little flat. Where it does excel is in finding new angles from which to consider the Holocaust without dwelling on it--the very idea of an assembly line inside a prison camp where the skilled labourers are sure they'll be killed as soon as their project is finished will have a terrifying resonance for anyone who works hard for their money (as will the acquisition of a ping-pong table as singularly absurd incentive for a job well done).
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THE BLU-RAY DISC
Cinematographer Benedict Neuenfels shot The Counterfeiters in Super16, and the lighter (compared to 35mm) cameras allowed for a handheld shooting style that apes documentary-style filmmaking from shakycam operation to fast zooms--an occasionally distracting tactic. Sony's Blu-ray Disc reproduces the look of 16mm in a 1.85:1, 1080p transfer that preserves the apparent grain structure across every shot, especially in darker scenes. (Interestingly, Sony has added a grain warning to the fine-print notes on the back of the keepcase, no doubt anticipating complaints from flat-screen viewers who neither know nor care what celluloid looks like.) The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio (I listened to the core track at 448 kbps) is consistently detailed, with the soundstage regularly filling with the clatter of the prisoners' printing machinery, or spreading out to accommodate the ambient sounds of the camp and the murmuring strains of the opera recordings the Nazis play as background music. Ruzowitzky uses camera angles designed to force audience identification with the prisoners, and one scene late in the film follows suit with subjective audio effects--a very flat soundmix, with muffled dialogue--to put you inside Sol's head, his senses going dull after he witnesses the death of another inmate. While it's not a showcase for your subwoofer, fans of rich multi-channel soundtracks should not go wanting.
The full-length audio commentary with Ruzowitzky is interesting enough, boasting a generous supply of anecdotes about the production and some of the director's thoughts on translating real events into screen material (and inventing a few), but it feels like the 90-year-old Burger is the real star of the fairly generous slate of extras, almost all of them only in SD. There is a segment featuring 16x9 interviews with Burger, Markovics, and Ruzowitzky (38 mins.), in addition to a 16x9 featurette in which Burger displays a few of the artifacts he kept from his time in the concentration camps (19 mins.). A short (10 mins.), German-language documentary in 4x3 SD with burned-in yellow English subtitles contains B-roll that provides a good impression of the filming conditions--including the look of the sets and the relatively small size of the handheld 16mm film cameras--plus a clip of Burger delivering a lecture on his work in the camps and footage showing him consulting on set during the production.
Also loaded up on the disc is a 4x3 Q&A with Ruzowitzky (13 mins.) recorded after a screening at last year's AFI Fest (with sub-par sound quality) where he again discusses the process of adapting known and unknown history as well as attitudes towards the Holocaust inside contemporary Germany and the "bad vibrations" he got while shooting outside a real concentration camp. There are a handful of deleted scenes in letterboxed SD with burned-in yellow subtitles, one of which expands usefully on the relationship between Sol and an ill prisoner. The original theatrical trailer, at least, is presented in HD with 5.1 sound--but subtitles are once more non-removable. As usual, there's nothing of interest in the BD Live material, just promos for other Sony properties. HD trailers for Standard Operating Procedure, Redbelt, Youth Without Youth, Sleuth, Black Book, Persepolis, The Lives of Others, Married Life, Steep, The Jane Austen Book Club, and The Fall round out the platter. Originally published: September 5, 2008.