Tuesday, June 3, 2008

"the counterfeiters" movie review

last saturday afternoon pat and i went to see "the counterfeiters," winner of the 2008 academy award for best foreign language film. this austrian film, in german with english subtitles, is set in nazi germany and tells the story of the german's plot to flood england and the united states with counterfeit currency. it's not you typical "holocaust" film and, instead, focuses on the moral and ethical dilemmas confronted by the concentration camp prisoners who collaborate with the nazi. based on a true story, it's told not from the perspective of the author, but rather through the life of "sally," solomon sorowitsch.

sally, a world-class counterfeiter, is caught and imprisoned by the germans in 1936. after 5 years in a concentration camp, where he traded on his artistic skills to obtain an easier life in the camp, is transferred to different camp. it's not a random transfer but part of the an effort to collect all prisoners who could assist in a massive plan to counterfeit pound and dollar notes. sally was chosen the very police officer who arrested him in 1936 and is now, somewhat surprisingly, in charge of "operation bernhard," as the counterfeiting plan is known.

the nominal "hero" of "the counterfeiters" is adolph burger, author of "the devil's workshop," the book the film is loosely based upon. burger is the thorn in sally's proverbial side - constantly agitating to sabotage the work being done by the prisoners, regardless of the threats of harm if they fail to produce viable counterfeit notes. the tension between sally and burger, and the symbolic tug of war between personal safety and the collective "good," is played out across the time they spend in the camp.

the film is photographed in grey, muted tones, and never seems to have any bright, in focus, shots. the purposeful cinematography highlights the moral ambiguity of the positions taken by the prisoners. in one scene, for example, a fellow prisoner argues with sally, and threatens to reveal burger as the saboteur. sally defend burger indirectly, insisting that he not "rat out" a fellow prisoner. that is met with incredulous (and i paraphrase), "we're to die because you want us to uphold the criminal's code?" there is no meaningful response, so sally tells him point blank, "if you turn him in, i'll kill you myself."

we're introduced to burger when he refused the "new clothes" offered to the prisoners when they arrive at the camp (when he learns those are the clothes of murder prisoners from other camps). yet burger had no qualms about sleeping on the "soft clean sheets," in the warm bunks they are assigned to, separate and apart from the general camp population. nor did burger, while castigating sally for his blatant self-interest, ever refuse the extra food and cigarettes they received from the nazi.

but the power of film is almost erased by the preposterous hollywood feel-good ending grafted onto the story. the film ends with sally in monaco with a suitcase full of the counterfeit dollars (that he just happened to walk out of the concentration camp with, following its liberation by the allies). initially, he spends the money freely and wins big at the casino. but, while holding 4 aces and about to beat the player with a full house, sally suddenly folds his cards and gives up the pot. then, just as rashly, he grabs the remaining dollars stored in the hotel safe and recklessly loses them at the roulette wheel until - of course - he is rendered broke and penniless.

and as if calculated to further insult the collective intelligence of the audience, the film one ups itself in terms of sheer ridiculousness. sally, with his newly reborn, freshly cleansed soul, is now on the beach at twilight - where he is suddenly joined by the mysterious woman who may, or may not be, a prostitute. her professional ambiguity is a result of her protestation "i am not...," while in the next breath she pocketed the money sally offered her after their night together (conveniently, before he realized how evil those counterfeit dollars were). she offers this pearl, "so you've had a run of bad luck?" to which he replies, "we can always make more."

so be forewarned. before committing to the emotional investment required for the first 9o% of this otherwise excellent film, know the ending is a huge letdown. so large a disappointment, in fact, it may negatively impact the overall view of the film! i am baffled why the film didn't end with the striking and powerful images of the liberation of the concentration camp - which, i my opinion, would have been the perfect conclusion to the film.

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