Jim Schembri, Reviewer
May 8, 2008
There's a shocking scene in The Counterfeiters in which an SS concentration camp officer orders a Jewish prisoner to kneel down before casually executing him with a bullet to the brain. It's a jolting moment familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in the sub-genre of Holocaust films that has grown in the wake of Steven Spielberg's epochal 1993 epic Schindler's List.
It's one of a series of dreaded images we have come to expect from films about the Shoah - yet it turns out to be the scene in The Counterfeiters that is easiest to watch.
This tautly directed, cool-headed, soul-shuddering drama ranks as the most unnerving, disturbing, true-life account yet of endurance under Nazi oppression.
And the film's unsettling power has little to do with indulging the now standard portrayals of brutality and privation. Instead, it pushes us deep into the fog of moral compromise with its lean, tortured tale about Jewish prisoners who agree to collaborate with their Nazi persecutors.
Writer-director Stefan Ruzowitzky (who adapted the book by Adolf Burger) bravely steps beyond the usual scenes of barbed wire and butchery to a realm in which the impulse to act morally is overwhelmed by the instinct to survive.
The tale begins in the tastefully decadent Berlin of 1936, where gifted Russian-Jewish swindler and document forger Salomon Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics) is having a great time networking, socialising and bedding women. He is then arrested by the Nazis and sent to a concentration camp, where he manages to find favour by painting cheesy portraits of the Nazi officers and their families.
He is recognised by Commandant Herzog (Devid Striesow), who was the police officer who arrested him. Knowing how valuable his talents as a forger could be to the Reich, Herzog sends Sorowitsch to Sachsenhausen where he is made part of a secret detail with other skilled prisoners. Their task is to produce counterfeit bank notes to flood the British and US economies.
The job comes with perks. The workers get special privileges, good food, comfortable beds and recreational activities. Even the guards have to watch themselves. In one brief but memorable scene, an SS goon is frustrated because he is unable to severely beat a prisoner.
What distinguishes The Counterfeiters is the masterfully subtle manner by which Ruzowitzky gets under your guard and wreaks havoc with your conscience.
Though you know the Jewish prisoners are working to save themselves and their families, Ruzowitzky immerses you so deeply in their collaboration that you almost cheer when they succeed in giving the Nazis what they want. It's a brilliant, deliberate ploy designed to make you feel the complicity of the characters and the triumph of the Nazis, at least for a few moments.
In all frankness, it is one of the oddest, most unnerving reactions this reviewer has had to a Holocaust film. Ruzowitzky makes you share the thrill of forging an allied banknote, then you become aware of what you are feeling and shake off the obscenity of the elation you have just been suckered into experiencing.
It is a prime example of great direction, and it is little wonder the film took out the Oscar this year for best foreign film.
Much of the film's dark power is due to the magnetic lead performance by Austrian actor Karl Markovics. With an angular head that looks as if it was hewn from a boulder of granite, his stone-faced presence brings a disturbing coolness to the proceedings.
To a large degree, we've been conditioned to expect certain things from Holocaust movies, and our responses - typically a mixture of outrage and sorrow - have been similarly honed into a kind of emotional rote.
There is, perversely, a measure of reassurance in seeing Nazis cast as unconditionally powerful villains and Jews as unconditionally powerless victims. It's horrific, but at least the line between good and evil, between right and wrong, is not in doubt. The Counterfeiters is entirely uninterested in providing any such emotional comfort zone. Its focus is on how blurry the line can get when one's survival is at stake. It's as though the film was intended to counter the moral clarity that underpins Schindler's List. "The list is an absolute good," Stern tells Schindler. "The list is life."
There are no such sentiments here.
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