Film review by: Witney Seibold
The old joke goes that if you want to win an Academy Award, make a film about World War II. Be sure to focus on how horrible it was.
Stefan Ruzowitzky’s new film “The Counterfeiters” tells the true story of a group of concentration-camp-bound Jews, particularly career criminal Sally Sorowisch (Karl Marcovics), who were enlisted by the Nazis to counterfeit Allied currency in order to ruin the Allied economy. Their lives were horrible. They faced all manner of moral dilemmas (is it right to help the enemy in exchange for better treatment?), are constantly facing death, and some even some to a new understanding of themselves. The film did indeed win the 2007 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
But the film is not as glib as I make it sound. In fact, it’s admirable in how economic it is; at a mere 98 minutes, the director never slows down to explain the move from freedom to Nazi cloister. He never gives us contemplative scenes of terror which are only intended to frighten and sicken us and make no comment on the characters, the story, or even the war in general (remember that scene in “Schindler’s List” where the Jewish factory worker is taken outside to be shot? But the gun won’t go off? And the Nazi’s fiddle with it and try again, but it still won’t go off, and the audience is cringing and wincing at every attempt to pull the trigger? Yeah, “The Counterfeiters” is mercifully free of scenes like that).
Plus, the moral questions it asks are going to be questions you’ll actually bother to ask yourself as you leave the theater. For instance: If the Nazis were using me to help them in their war effort, but they were letting you live in relative comfort, they provided ample nutrition and healthcare, and even promised to let you live until the end of the war, would you do it? If you would, would you feel any guilt? If you wouldn’t, would you sabotage the project entirely in order to hurt the Nazi war effort… even if it cost you your life and the lives of 100 comrades? Most films with central moral dilemmas hurl such questions at you from their posters (What would YOU do if…?), but don’t bother to involve the audience enough into answering them. “The Counterfeiters,” with its brisk pace, true tales, engaging performances (Marcovics is stellar as he slowly grows a spine, and August Diehl is properly enraged as the saboteur. Especially good is David Striesow as the “nice” Nazi, who coos and smirks, and seems to have a too-well-developed blind spot), engages us like an action film, but involves us like a WWII dramam ought to.
I liked “The Counterfeiters” more than I expected to. You might as well.