Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Counterfeiters

I recently read that, despite winning an Oscar for best foreign film, Stefan Ruzowitzky’s The Counterfeiters has still brought in less than a million dollars at the box office. It's too bad, because it's a strong film, one of the best I've seen so far this year.

Set in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, it conflates two standard Holocaust film traditions - the virtuoso who survives because of his artistry, and the moral grey zone that exists when survival means collaboration with the Nazis. The first type is best exemplified by Roman Polanski's The Pianist, a film I disliked for the same reason I didn’t care for last year's Oscar winning Foreign film The Lives of Others - the idea that evil is so easily overcome by a bit of culture. That an otherwise morally corrupt person will be moved to tears and jeopardize his own career/life, after hearing someone play a few notes on the piano. Adrien Brody's Wadislaw Szpilman miraculously survives the Holocaust because of his ability to play the piano. Towards the end of the film, late in the war, he returns to the rubble of the now empty ghetto, barely alive, and is discovered by a German office who orders Szpilman to play for him. That a functional piano is on site stretches credulity beyond the breaking point.

Though I haven't seen it since I was twelve, I recall the 1980 Vanessa Redgrave made-for-TV film Playing For Time covering this territory more effectively. With a script by Arthur Miller, the film explored the life of Fania Fénelon, who survived Auschwitz by performing in an orchestra who played in order to ease the minds of the victims as they marched to the gas chambers.

The Grey Zone (2001) also explores a group that forestalls execution by assisting in the extermination process. It tells the story of a unit of the Sonderkommandos, work groups who prolonged their life by a few weeks and received preferential treatment in the camps (a clean blanket, decent food) by moving corpses from the gas chambers to the crematoria. The film is well intentioned and not without its moments, but suffers from terrible casting decisions (raiding teen franchises like Scream and American Pie), bad accents and theatrical cadences. At one point, Harvey Keitel's German officer demands that the others stop speaking Hungarian so that he can understand them, despite the fact that the actors speak nothing except English. It's either the height of laziness (not being able to teach the actors a couple lines of phonetic Hungarian) or the worst theatrical conceit. Either way it was like finding a piano in a bombed out ghetto.

The Day the Clown Cried is a Holocaust comedy directed by and starring Jerry Lewis, made in 1972. The film follows a depressed clown who accidentally boards the train to Auschwitz and finds himself using his, ah, clown skills, to lead the children, Pied Piper style, into the gas chambers. Presumably horrified at what he’s become, he joins them in the 'showers', for one last moment of clown schtick, before they are all gassed. Wisely, the film was never released. Apparently Lewis keeps the only known copy in his desk drawer.

Salomon Sorowitsch in The Counterfeiters is a virtuoso of another kind. His artistry is that he can counterfeit bills and, after his arrest, he is sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp to assist the Nazi war effort. The plan is to duplicate the British pound and flood the market with them, destabilizing the economy of the UK. Sorowitsch leads a team charged with the task of cracking the US dollar. Some of them, including Sorowitsch, who seems reinvigorated just to be practicing his craft again, are content to stave off the inevitable, while others feel that they are aiding the otherwise waning war effort and thus complicit in the deaths of thousands. Adolf Burger, a Marxist printer who opts to wear prison garb instead of the civilian clothing of the dead, objects to their collaboration and threatens to sabotage their efforts.

It’s a tale of site-specific morality. Films about prison often present a unique but rigid moral code (where rapists are shunned but murders respected and informants rank lower than pedophiles). In a prison designed for pure evil one might expect either a moral vacuum or a black and white lack of ambiguity. But the moral conundrum here is presented as complex, and without the usual nagging sensation of cinematic exploitation.

It’s in the small details, though, where the film makes its impact. When the camp is liberated, for example, the well-fed counterfeiters have to ask the emaciated other prisoners how to dispose of a corpse.

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