It seems there are two sure-fire ways to win an Academy Award in Hollywood. One is to play a character that is mentally or physically challenged. The other is to make a film that deals with the Holocaust. Most films in the latter category, such as The Pianist, The Last Days and of course, Schindler’s List, rightfully earned their statues. But every so often there have been one or two whose win is worthy of raising an eyebrow over. One was Roberto Benigni’s Best Actor award for Life Is Beautiful. Another is the Best Foreign Film award given this past winter to the Austrian drama The Counterfeiters, now available on Blu-ray from Sony Home Pictures Entertainment.
Based on the memoir by Adolf Burger, Stefan Ruzowitzky’s film tells the story of a pre-World War II criminal whose cunning nature enabled him to overcome deadly odds and survive life in Germany’s Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Before the war, Salomon “Sally” Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics) was a top-flight counterfeiter and lived the high life in Germany until he was caught and arrested by Friedrich Herzog (Devid Striesow).
Following Sorowitsch’s arrest, the story jumps ahead a few years. Sorowitsch has been placed in a concentration camp. The Nazi movement is in full swing and Herzog–now a Nazi leader–recruits Sorowitsch to lead an enormous counterfeiting project called Operation Bernhard, which aims to flood, and destroy, the British economy with counterfeit currency. Sorowitsch, along with a group of fellow counterfeiters that includes Burger (August Diehl), finds himself separated from the camp’s other incarcerated Jews, living in conditions that are in stark contrast to the others in the camp. Burger is determined to sabotage the operation, but Sorowitsch understands how dangerous a proposition that could turn out to be. The self-centered criminal is forced to decide whether or not to save his own life or prevent the Nazis from causing further damage on an even grander scale.
At its core, The Counterfeiters offers a chapter of Holocaust history that the world of cinema hasn’t presented yet. Prior to my recent viewing, I was completely unaware that this operation ever existed or that these events ever occurred. Add to the mix an examination of the ethical choices facing the story’s characters, and you have the groundwork for an involving, powerful drama if handled properly. You know…the type of drama that wins awards.
But is compelling subject matter enough to warrant The Counterfeiters a Best Foreign Film award, especially in light of much stronger films released in other countries last year that weren’t even nominated? I don’t believe it does. The film is, at times, a solid drama that holds your attention. But it is also one that possesses a lot of storytelling clichés. Ruzowitzky bookends his film with a flashback device that drains a fair amount of dramatic tension and suspense, a flaw that could have easily been averted by removing the first flashback and replacing it with more background on Sorowitsch in the pre-war days. And even though the story is a largely unknown one, it’s not hard to figure out what is going to happen to whom along the way. Ruzowitzky has said in interviews that some dramatic license was taken with the story to make it more cinematic. Unfortunately, that license he took made the film less compelling, involving and more pedestrian. I’ll give the young filmmaker credit for not tugging at our heartstrings, but at the same time he has to be faulted for keeping us at a distance, making it very hard to empathize with the onscreen events.
The story isn’t the only victim of Hollywood filmmaking mechanics. The characters come across more as Holocaust film stereotypes than they do actual human beings, despite the best efforts by the cast. Herzog is the Nazi who deep down really isn’t a Nazi and is just “doing his job” (think Thomas Krestchmann’s character from The Pianist). Sorowitsch is a self-centered jerk who grows a conscience when push comes to shove; Burger comes to represent Sorowitsch’s conscience and so on.
The Counterfeiters is a film that left this reviewer torn. While I was interested in the people and events, I found it hard to really care about them. Had Ruzowitzky spent more time giving the characters a bit of dimension and pulling back on the clichés, this could have a movie worthy of its accolades rather than just a knock off of better award-winning dramas dealing with the Holocaust.
The movie gave Sony Pictures Classics a major Oscar last winter, so it seems only fair that Sony Pictures Home Entertainment gives the film some respect on Blu-ray. For starters, the AVC MPEG-4 transfer is a very nicely handled. Shot in 16mm, the film has a grainy look to it and that look is well-preserved on this disc (DNR haters, rejoice!). Colors make their presence known despite the purposely drained palette. Black levels are solid, as is picture detail. I didn’t detect any noticeable compression artifacts or video noise.
There are two 5.1 Dolby TrueHD tracks on this disc: the original German language track and a French track. For the most part, audio originates mostly from the center channel (you expected otherwise from a low-budget drama shot on 16mm?) and is perfectly acceptable, with the left and right front speakers used mostly for the film’s music score. Surrounds are seldom used.
The Counterfeiters comes with a generous amount of extras considering that the movie isn’t a big-budget Hollywood event picture. While some of the material is repeated in a couple of different places, the majority of the material presented here is both informative and, at times, more involving than the movie itself.
Director Stefan Ruzowitzky provides an interesting Feature-Length Audio Commentary that goes into detail about the production of the film. The ten-minute Making of The Counterfeiters is your standard puff-piece that gives a brief overview of the making of the movie and features interview snippets with the cast and crew. Four Deleted Scenes that run a little under four minutes total come next. The scenes are decent, but nothing anyone would miss if they didn’t make it on to the disc.
Filmed following a screening on November 10, 2007, a Q&A with Director Stefan Ruzowitzky runs a little over thirteen minutes and has the filmmaker answering audience questions about the making of the film, some of the issues the production had such as attempting to film at the real Sachsenhausen concentration camp (they were denied access) and what happened to the real-life characters after World War II. The director appeared to be a little nervous talking with the audience, but overall he does a decent job.
A trio of Interviews come next and can be played either separately or as one segment which runs approximately 38 minutes. One is with director Ruzowitzky, lead actor Karl Markovics and the real-life Adolph Burger. Ruzowitzky talks about the production, Markovics discusses his role in the film and Burger talks about his life-long efforts to get this story told. At this point, I was beginning to tire of hearing Ruzowitzky talk about the project, but I found Markovics and Burger’s comments to be very interesting and should have gone longer than the ten minutes each of their interviews did.
Fortunately, we do hear more from Burger in the strongest supplement on the disc, the 20-minute Adolph Burger’s Artifacts. The 90-year old Holocaust survivor tells the story in his own words, shows the viewer items such as a floor map to the concentration camp the story takes place in, photos, counterfeit notes and stamps. He also talks about the books he has written (aside from The Counterfeiters), one or two in response to the morons of the world who claim the Holocaust never existed (insert your own comment about Mel Gibson’s dad here).
The film’s Theatrical Trailer and BD-Live Access round out the bonus material. The trailer effectively sells the movie, more so than the horrible cover Sony came up with. Really guys, what is up with selling the woman as a major character? She’s only in the film for five minutes at the beginning and end, if that. As for the BD-Live content, it is a case of much ado about nothing. It took a while to access the site and when I got to the site, there was nothing associated with the movie to look at or download. Okay, there was one thing: the theatrical trailer that is already included on the disc. Bravo.
Had The Counterfeiters dropped the flashback device and been a little more honest and a little less Hollywood with its storytelling, it could have been a drama about the Shoah on the level of The Pianist or perhaps even Schindler’s List (okay, maybe not that good). As it is, Stefan Ruzowitzky’s drama has a compelling subject matter and a strong ensemble cast. Sony Pictures Home Entertainment’s Blu-ray Disc offers a strong presentation and a generous amount of informative supplements to support it. I recommend this as a purchase for fans of the movie. For those who may consider a “blind buy” of the title, I strongly recommend that you give it a rental first.
Shop for The Counterfeiters on Blu-ray at Amazon.com.