The Moral Dilemma of Survival

    {grate 2.5} The daring acts of bravery and endurance in many
    concentration camps are brusque vignettes too short to fill an entire film;
    stealing a bar of soap or half-eaten apple often ends with the abrupt bark of a
    German rifle seven steps later. But if a captive were talented and morally
    pliable enough to oversee a Nazi operation aimed at flooding and destabilizing
    the English economy with reproduced pounds, he might last long enough.

    As such, Stefan Ruzowitzky’s “The Counterfeiters” follows
    the somber survival of a notorious forgery artist and his clawing attempts to
    adapt to his changing circumstances. The film’s encapsulation of Salomon
    Sorowitsch’s (Karl Markovics) story, however, is a disappointingly
    underdeveloped effort that fails to percolate any nuances. Winning this year’s
    Oscar for “Best Foreign Language Film,” Ruzowitzky’s work resembles a typical
    cable channel miniseries: artistically leavened but decidedly stale.

    Sorowitsch’s infamous criminal past is excavated by the Nazi
    government soon after Austria’s
    collapse and his own subsequent incarceration. Banding together upstanding
    financiers, radical political martyrs and printing-factory proletariats, the
    group’s collective endeavor provides the government with millions of
    counterfeit notes in exchange for rudimentary food, clothing, shelter and
    protection. Most of the film’s argumentative dialogue and episodic drama stem
    from the dynamic politics of these uniquely fortunate individuals, where
    Salomon learns his own survivalist philosophy mirrors that of the Nazi Captain
    Friedrich Herzog (Devid Striesow) — who professes he’s not a Nazi, but that
    he’s merely doing what he must in order to survive.

    The moral dilemma offered to each individual is shaped by
    distinct ideologies; notably, Social Darwinism for Salomon and Communism for
    Atze (Veit Stubner). While their escalating conflict forms most of the film’s
    explosive dramatic tension, it’s offset by an array of minor characters.
    Segregated from the mass of starving prisoners, the principles each come to
    represent the vote for which is more important: life or integrity. As Atze
    continues to stall the production of forged American dollars, his reasons are
    morally justifiable. Yet being just one individual, his personal fortitude is
    just that — only his own. In its climatic moment of truth, deus ex machina
    intervenes and the potential undesirable sentiments of the audience are
    averted.

    Acting often goes unappreciated in foreign films for two
    reasons: 1) The audience is unable to detect the linguistic tones and
    inflection of the performer and 2) our eyes are too busy scuttling the bottom
    of the screen trying to read simplified subtitles. Pleasantly enough,
    Markovic’s Salomon isn’t overly dependent on either. His square features and
    heavy eyes lend the visage of a calculating stoic. Rather than feign a
    character’s blooming sense of compassion, Markovic uses the role as a criminal
    wise to the ways of the world and mankind. After all, he could have been a
    skilled artist, but chose instead the comfortable life of a counterfeiting
    criminal.

    The film falls apart outside the relatively stock narrative,
    simply enough, by its art direction. Striations and stripes cohesively lend
    some thematic unity but their trite usage dissolves into redundancy. The
    cinematography does the same; coupled with heavily charcoaled shadows and an
    oppressively sullen blue tint, its stylistic characteristics lack originality —
    it’s imitative melancholia. Although it fittingly captures a desired tone (and
    even contrasts it well with the artificially immaculate and sterile shades of
    white when artistically relevant), similar to many other aspects of the film,
    it’s all something we’ve vaguely seen before.

    Winning an Oscar will definitely entice a larger audience;
    yet when films such as Cristian Mungiu’s “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” failed
    to even get nominated, the Academy’s selection becomes noticeably incomplete.
    If this win helps to encourage the renaissance of independent Austrian films,
    then it at least accomplishes something. However, “The Counterfeiters” seems to
    be reveling in praise a little too prematurely.

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