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February 20, 2008

Fake It 'Til They Make It

Counterfeiters director and star on ambiguity, Oscar and the trouble with Holocaust films

Money men: (L-R) Andreas Schmidt and Karl Markovics in The Counterfeiters (Photo: Sony Pictures Classics)

Stefan Ruzowitzky wanted to be clear: The Counterfeiters is not a Holocaust film. The true story of a master money fabricator leading concentration camp inmates in the Nazi's efforts to destabilize Allied economies with counterfeit cash, the movie addresses a different anguish, a different horror. In a camp, yes, but almost despite it.

"The situation that these counterfeiters are in is so special," Ruzowitzky told The Reeler during a recent visit to New York, one stopover on the Ausrian's long international journey culminating Sunday in The Counterfeiters' Oscar bid for Best Foreign-Language Film. (It opens Friday in New York.) "Not only do they have privileges like being provided with good food and clothing, but also, they have the possibility to make moral choices -- as opposed to the other inmates, for whom it's only about surviving the next day and getting a piece of bread. In the case of these counterfeiters, it is possible for us to identify and ask moral questions: 'What would I have done? Which side would I have been on?' "

It's a genuine (and genuinely fresh) ambiguity, all the more troubling when considering the trajectory of its "hero," Berlin counterfeiting legend Salomon "Sally" Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics), from café society kingpin to ex-con mercenary. Angling for any advantage in the hell of Mauthausen ("It's just like any other jail," he tells a tremulous bunkmate after threatening a Nazi guard's life), he parlays his artistic skills into a job sketching and painting portraits for the SS. More rewards follow, none more bracing than his transfer to Sachsenhausen and a reunion with police inspector-turned-Nazi commandant Herzog (Devid Striesow), who recruits the confirmed scoundrel to head Operation Bernhard: A team of printers and bankers manufacturing hundreds of millions' worth in fake dollar bills and pound notes.

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"Complex" is almost too kind a word for Sally, whose unscrupulousness goes both ways as a self-interested survivor and a Nazi collaborator. Beginning at the end, with Sally splurging thousands of counterfeit dollars in the aloof, decadent haven of Monte Carlo, Ruzowitzky allows only that Sally will outlast his captors and curse the system that enabled them. Markovics thwarts expectations from there, one scene after another, all haunted deliberation and jittery insomniac cool.

"It's very important that he is like he is," Markovics said. "It makes us think about the role of 'victim' in general -- that our idea of 'victim' should be a good, moral person, and if possible, good-looking as well. But life's not like that. A victim is always a victim. It's important that he's that kind of character. We see them not as part of a special sort of race or different group of people, but just as human beings kept under bad conditions by other human beings. That's what the movie is about."

Nevertheless, as historically grave as they are, Ruzowitzky knew the cinematic implications of that victimhood had evolved over the decades into genre tropes -- so much so that the very idea of tackling the subject seemed inaccessible. "I thought you can't make a concentration camp movie because for us -- the audience -- it would be impossible to identify with an inmate in terms of what I would feel or think if I was there," he said.

Moreover, the counterfeiters' corner of Sachsenhausen is a camp environment viewers likely haven't seen before: Prisoners in suits and white lab coats tend to printers, taking breaks for hot meals, listening to opera and sleeping each night in soft bunk beds with clean sheets. "It's still a concentration camp," says Burger (August Diehl), a young communist exported from Auschwitz for his skill with collotype (and inspired by Adolf Burger, the Sachsenhausen survivor and Operation Bernhard principal on whose memoirs The Counterfeiters is based). Burger's attempts at sabotage are met with resistance by Sally and the others, but they stall the dollar long enough to help immobilize the Nazi war effort. Even when Sally finally cracks the dollar (which, not coincidentally, was his downfall before the war), it's impossible to know if it's on his colleagues' behalves or just to prove he could do it.

The Counterfeiters' skill establishing narrative tension and full-on moral ambiguity in its most ironic of settings also helped engineer its Oscar nomination coup over more renowned critical favorites 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and Persepolis. (At least that's Ruzowitzky's impression; I tend to agree with him.) The director had a film in the Oscar running nearly a decade ago when Austria named The Inheritors its official awards-season submission in 1999; The Counterfeiters' nod this year provided the veteran actor Markovics, en route to Hollywood, his first opportunity to visit the United States.

"I can enjoy it half as a visitor and half as a member of this whole circus," he said. "It's so unreal for a person coming from Austria and always wanting to become an actor, because whether it's good or bad, at the end there is always Oscar. Always. It's like the North Star. Everybody lies who says it's not like that. I wouldn't dream of it. I never want to be that cold-blooded."



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