The engrossing but unworthy winner of this year's Foreign Language Oscar, Austria's The Counterfeiters is a perfect example of Academy voters confusing a great premise for a great film and again handing the statue to history's most horrifying (and Oscar-winning) atrocity. It's not the most egregious of choices — see Life Is Beautiful for that honor — but it's disappointing given that Romania's far superior 4 Months 3 Weeks 2 Days wasn't even nominated.
Truth is, Stefan Ruzowitzky's slick thriller is a "Holocaust" film in name only. Based on a true story but undeniably gussied up for the screen, The Counterfeiters charts the survival tactics of Salomon "Sally" Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics), a Jewish criminal-turned-concentration camp inmate, whose counterfeiting talents spare him the gas chambers. In trade for special privileges, Sally leads a secret squad of imprisoned forgers and printers to produce bogus British and American currency so the Nazis can wreak havoc on their enemies' economies.
As a character study, the film plays like a Semitic version of 1965's King Rat, showing us a compelling but unsympathetic protagonist forced into an impossible situation. Yes, the death camps were filled with less-than-noble Jews and there's an inherent appeal to watching Sally navigate through this brutal catch-22, but similar moral terrain was conquered much more persuasively (and artfully) in Roman Polanski's The Pianist.
The Counterfeiter's success lies mostly in its breakneck pace and Markovics' self-contained, almost feral, performance. Masterfully balancing cool, calculating charisma with barely contained panic, he's simultaneously gripping and repellent, lending weight to the film's most contrived moments. But as a treatise on survivor ethics, Ruzowitzky's movie is sketchy at best, simplifying its moral drama to melodramatic plot turns and trading in countless cinematic clichés — gaunt inmates used as props, generically sadistic Nazi guards and supporting characters that are predictable and paper-thin. In many ways, the Holocaust is reduced to set dressing, lending menace and the weight of history, but mostly left unexplored.
Even the art of counterfeiting is given short shrift. One of the great joys of cinema is watching professionals do what they do best, whether it's bank robbers planning heists or generals executing battlefield attacks. The Counterfeiters shows us little of Sally's vaunted skill, revealing Ruzowitzky's limitations as a storyteller and filmmaker. Worse, the director uses that tired framing device — the unrevealing and unnecessary flash-forward — to bookend his story.
All told, The Counterfeiters is much less than the sum of its best parts. It may be convincing as entertainment and fascinating as historical footnote but don't let its somber tone, tragic backdrop and gripping central performance fool you into thinking it's anything more than a well-made forgery.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237) at 7 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, March 28-30.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.