The Counterfeiters (Die Fälscher)
by James Adams Smith
Rating: 3 of 5 stars
AFTER the writers strike this year, the Oscars had trouble keeping audiences watching. Not only was the lineup of nominated films—such as There Will Be Blood, No Country For Old Men, and Michael Clayton—unheard of by most, the films were too artsy to invite the public eye. The Best Foreign Language Film Award has had a history of favoring art house cinema. The trend continued when the Oscar went to Germany’s The Lives of Others last year.
This year’s winner, The Counterfeiters from Austria, takes on a weighty subject, The Holocaust, without really getting to the center of it. While most Holocaust films touch on the graphic and malicious nature of genocide, this film takes another approach. It tells the true story of a group of Jews who are chosen to work at a concentration camp as counterfeiters, illegally copying the British Pound and US Dollar to fuel the Nazi plan of bankrupting foreign economies.
The group, led by former conman Salomon Sorowitsch (Karl Marcovics), must work to stay alive under the supervision of Nazi war criminal Friedrich Herzog (Devid Striesow). They are given comfortable places to sleep, stuffed with food, and worked strenuously for the Nazi regime in a sealed-off bunker.
All the while, they can hear other Jews being tortured and murdered just over the wall. Sorowitsch’s top priority is staying alive, but a younger idealist in the crew plans a strike in hopes of sparking a revolution. The tension builds as the group encounters trouble reproducing the US Dollar.
The film’s cinematography, dark and grainy, adds a stylistic glow to the scenes. The handheld camera shakes from scene to scene. At times, the style is overdone, distracting from the significance of events on screen. Since the living conditions for these Jews were not as bad at the real concentration camps, the film’s sets worked well.
Although this film digs persistently to find a new path through the Holocaust—diverging from its forerunners Schindler’s List, The Pianist, and Faithless—it doesn’t separate itself from the pack. The dreariness and gloom of these movies has been touched on already. Still, Filmmakers keep returning to the Holocaust to find new material. The problem is that eventually the realistic nature of the Holocaust comes only as memory of a film.
An example is James Cameron’s Titanic, which emptied many bags of buttered popcorn, but also distorted a real tragedy. This is not to say that tragic history should not be touched. However, once a real-life occurrence—with the people who died or the families who were affected—becomes an entire genre, it begins to market a mere interpretation of human tragedy.
Beyond its social failures, The Counterfeiters works in a detached way – the audience is not invited to interact with the characters. The protagonist Solomon, with his own set of moral failings, is hard to trust. Therefore the narrative rolls disjointedly back and forth, and the audience is given the ending first. The result of this is a loss of emotional impact—rather, it seems to declare itself a film, or just: another Holocaust film.
Most critics and the Academy Awards declare The Counterfeiters to be a work of art and originality. Then why didn’t Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book, another Holocaust drama, win Best Foreign film last year? Although the Holocaust itself will forever haunt the memories of the world, filmmakers need to find new subject matter.
A more deserving film was the more uplifting tale of Jean-Dominque Bauby’s dealing with paralysis, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Nevertheless, since the Academy Awards received some of their lowest ratings this year, it probably makes little difference who won.