Wednesday, October 10, 2007

THE COUNTERFEITERS/DIE FAELSCHER - a Holocaust movie that sparked the mother of all debate among my friends - SPOILERS alert

This review is written by Nikolai, who can usually be found here.

To say I was disappointed by Die Fälscher (The Counterfeiters) is an understatement. The film was awfully shot, had a weak plot, a terrible ending, and was generally devoid of any interest or originality. While some of the acting performances were excellent, and kept the film going (like Devid Striesow as Herzog) - much of the acting and dialogue was average to poor, with substandard characterisation and 2-dimensional subplots. It was predictable, plodding, and by the end I was praying for World War II to end - not to save the poor Jews at Sachsenhausen - but to be spared any more boredom.

The Plot

The plot follows Salomon Sorowitsch, one of the world's best counterfeiters - living the high life in Berlin before his arrest in 1936. As a Jew he is taken to a concentration camp - before being moved to Sachsenhausen along with several other inmates to take part in the biggest counterfeiting operation on record. The Nazi plan was to collapse UK and US economies by creating hyperinflation, as well as to purchase goods for themselves, by forging millions of pounds and dollars of currency.

Sorowitsch is put in charge, but one of his fellow inmates Adolf Burger (August Diehl) refuses to cooperate with the Nazis. Sorowitsch must walk the delicate line between not betraying Burger, not getting himself or his fellow employees killed, and not helping the Nazis too much. The kicker is that it's all based on a true story - but sadly in this case the truth was not stranger than fiction.

Poor cinematography - worse execution

The cinematography in Die Fälscher is nothing short of amateurish DV-quality - so much so that I almost suspected it was deliberately trying to make a point. But it wasn't making any point - it was just shit. The lighting was also horrible - the sound wasn't great quality - all in all this was one aesthetically ugly film.

But I would have been willing to forgive it had it been any good. Sadly, despite a fairly sound premise, it wasn't. The so-called moral dilemma at the centre of the plot was weak to start off with and was half-heartedly portrayed. The high ideal of dying for ones principle is brought up but never really explored - because no one dies, and our main protagonist didn't really have particularly praiseworthy principles jn the first place.

With the heart of the movie so poorly portrayed, we are left with little more than a shell - a plot and characters that are neither interesting or original. We have all seen cinematic Jews being brutally murdered before - and while it is still unpleasant to watch, it is hardly educational or edifying. I didn't care enough for the characters to be too bothered if they lived or died anyway - and while it's always emotionally easy to boo the Nazis and hiss the Baroness, it becomes quite boring after a while.

Moral cowardice of modern holocaust movies

And perhaps that is the greatest failure of this film - its moral cowardice. It's too easy to make a film about nasty Nazis and nice Jews - noone will criticise it because after all, who would criticise a holocaust movie? Yet this film had an opportunity to be daring. It could have made Jewish characters with genuine moral flaws, instead of Sorowitsch, a Han Solo lovable rogue type with sweet benevolent instincts just waiting to get out. It could have made ordinary Nazis, with their own moral dilemmas, instead of the foaming psychopaths and sociopaths that Nazis are always portrayed to be. It might even, shock-horror, have drawn parallels between the humanity of the Nazis and that of the Jews. That would have been daring. That would have been different.

What is most shocking, most frightening about Nazism and the holocaust isn't that the Nazis were a weird special breed of psychopaths or madmen - but rather that most Nazis were ordinary people who we'd bump into in the street and drink with in a pub. In "The Lucifer Effect", Phillip Zimbardo (the scientist who designed the Stanford Prison Experiment) analyses how ordinary, good people can do the most inhumane and atrocious things in the right circumstances. In "Why good people do bad things", psychoanalyst James Hollis discusses the same issue. The conclusions are clear - under the right circumstances, with the right authorities and dehumanisation in place - ordinary people will torture and maim and kill.

The terrifying thing about Nazis is that they're just like us - but that is too challenging for mainstream cinema. Nazis are systematically dehumanised in movies to make us all feel more comfortable with ourselves. But, just like the soldiers at Abu Graib and Guantanamo Bay, and the various secret prisons around the world where people are tortured, most of them are just ordinary folks. Jews are just ordinary folks too - and if the boot were on the other foot would likely behave just the same - it's just so happens they've been fucked over more times than most.

Appeasing the audience

This cowardice in film making permeates modern holocaust cinema - partially to please critics, and partially to appease audiences. The audience is allowed to identify with the imperfect but deep-down good Jew, and boo and hiss the nasty psychopathic Nazi, never having to confront the fact that they are booing and hissing a part of themselves that they are unwilling to face. Die Fälscher falls into the same trap - and paints the world in the simple colours of good versus evil, bravery versus cowardice, black vs white. In this sense it misses its only remaining opportunity to make a real impact on the viewer, and consigns itself and its flagrant flaws to the annals of quickly forgotten films.

Overall, I would give Die Fälscher 2 stars out of 5, and no more than that. The film has shocking production values, it's pretty boring, and does nothing new - fading into the background of a genre that is already well represented. Save your money for Ratatouille - Pixar never lets us down - and you might even learn something about cooking. One thing's for sure, you won't learn diddly squat from this effort.

THE COUNTERFEITERS played Berlin and Toronto 2007 and has already gone on release in Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, Russia, Poland, Norway and Denmark. It goes on release in the UK on Friday, in the Netherlands on October 25th, in Belgium on December 19th, in the US on New Year's Eve and in Japan on January 19th 2008.

Bina007 adds:
I was very disappointed by this film. But you can't deny its merit in sparking a discussion about morality and cinema! Below are some interesting excerpts from the Scoundrels who joined Nikolai and myself at the screening......

First, from Professor007: "Interesting. I fully agree with the characterisation that ordinary people can turn pretty nasty when put under pressure to do certain things, independent of ethnic or religious background. However, this is exactly what I found the film actually captured quite well. Not all Nazis were shown as all-out evil and not all Jews were all good and great. In particular Sorowitch was shown to be a reasonably unpleasant character who mainly wants to save his own life. He shows some morality when confronted with the risk that one of his immediate mates could get killed but not because of some abstract reasoning that "out there" thousands of people are getting murdered. I think this is a very realistic depiction of human behaviour, and another example that often momentous results can happen not because someone actually cared for some high-level result to happen but out of much more personal motives. As for Burger, I wouldn't say he came out as the big hero of the story either and for me certainly wasn't the centre figure or moral centre of the film."

From Bina007, in response: "I think Burger is unquestionably the moral centre of the film. He's the one who want to sabotage the presses. When Zilinsky says "no-one wants to die for a moral principle", Burger replies "that is why the Nazi system works". To me, that sums up the moral centre of the film. After the counterfeiters are confronted with the real horror of the camps we see one of them start making excuses about how "they" sabotaged the process when really only Burger did this. He belatedly says Burger was a hero. As far as Sally is concerned, the film-makers soften up his character by showing his affection for Kolya, but that is standard formula. Still, it's fascinating to see that we all have such opposite views of what constitutes a moral centre!"

From the Professor's missus: "Anyway, just to prove we all sat in the same cinema and watched entirely different films, I found it very affecting. OK, so the framing device was lame and maybe they milked the death of Kolya too much, but it didn't strike me as a black and white picture, or even one with a clear moral centre. It's one of the few holocaust films I've seen which presented the camps from the point of view of simply staying alive - even Burger's actions could be seen from this position as survival was dependent on the allies winning. Certainly the Jews came across as a whole lot nicer than the Nazis (can't really imagine a reasonable film on the subject where this isn't the case...) but they didn't strike me as characters abiding by the usual "suffering makes you saintly" rule. It seemed more like what Orwell wrote about extreme poverty, that the most disconcerting effect on your personality is more or less being reduced to thinking about your next meal and nothing else. The guilt, horror and sheer degredation of the final scene when the two sets of prisoners finally meet was one of the more gut-wrenching moments in cinema I've seen in a while. If anyone can tell me what the obvious moral to that scene was, I'd genuinely be very interested. And on a random note, I really enjoyed the cinematography. I'm guessing the grainy, somewhat handheld look was deliberate as opposed to incompetence, to make it look like documentary/news footage and give a feel for the sordidness of it all. But that could just be the techie in me over-analysing...

From Nikolai, again: "Oh come come. The Jews were all lovely people under immense pressure. We can sympathise with every last one of them. Sorowitsch has a "prison" mentality – with loyalty to his friends and the people close to him. While he pretends to be self-centred, it is clear throughout that he has a big heart – through his affection for Kolya (short for Nikolai btw in Russian) – and through his refusal to betray Burger, even when under intense pressure to do so. Even the Jews that beat up Burger can be forgiven – after all, they were selected for execution – this massive strain on their characters was bound to make them crack. But even then, it was only at the point of death that they were willing to betray Burger to the Nazis. What lovely, deeply good and loyal people the Jews are. Burger himself is a moral hero – willing to die for his principles, knowing as he must that he will be betrayed by his colleagues in the end. What a great guy.

"And the National Socialists, well, they were horrible. Herzog is a truly self-centred opportunist – a typical criminal psychopath, not taking particular pleasure in killing, but doing it for his own gain and good. Then at the end, pitifully squealing for his own sake to Sorowitsch, who like a good forgiving Jew, lets him off the hook. The other Ns are brutal sadists, shooting, beating, verbally abusing and urinating on Jews for their personal pleasure. There is no ambiguity in the characters – none of the Ns are likeable or sweet in their own way – none of them have any redeeming features that we are made aware of.

"To be honest, this is yet another advert for Korean and Far East cinema, which is the only corner of the artistic world that is willing to take real risks with morally ambiguous heros, and sympathetic anti-heros. Films like Lady Vengeance make us challenge who we are – and how well we hold to our ideals of justice and rule of law when faced with a brutal murdering paedophile. The hero is understandable but deeply flawed, and does the objectively wrong thing. In Old Boy we see an anti-hero who is psychologically scarred by his past experiences in a way that is understandable – even though his actions subsequently are quite wrong. Western filmmaking around the holocaust is just an excuse for painting black and white moral pictures that appeal to the childish evangelicals across the pond – and that cannot be criticised by the more intellectual audiences in Germany or France for fear of moral outrage. In this sense it doesn't surprise me that the harshest critics of this film in our little audience were the cynical Brits – and that the Germans, Austrians (and to some extent the lone Jew) are its apologists – despite it being horribly flawed."

From Nikolai's missus: "Uh, Nikolai, the harshness of your critique probably has more to do with the fact that a) you and Bina are (I'd guess) probably far harsher film critics than the rest of us; b) your expectations of the movie were high high high from what you'd already heard about it; and c) you don't carry the inevitable traces of emotional identification that come with having any vestige of Jewish or German heritage. Not that these points have much bearing on the quality of the film, but as you acknowledged last night, it's damn near impossible for anyone that identifies with either Jews or Germans to separate themselves successfully from the Holocaust setting of the film and take an objectively critical stand.

"I'd agree that it didn't bring much new insight into the Holocaust, but in a way the film was less about the Holocaust than it was about the tension between taking the moral, principled stand - sacrificing self for the greater good - and acting out of self-interest. I totally disagree that the film showed the Jews as 'lovely people under immense pressure'. If they'd placed Burger as the protagonist, then yeah, that accusation would be accurate. But Sorowitsch was utterly morally ambiguous and emotionally impenetrable - a hard-edged professional forger who forsook the opportunity to be an artist for the opportunity to make money; who uses women as a reward for the money he's faked; the 'habitual criminal' who'll happily drink with anti-Semites, forge for them, do whatever it takes to ensure his own survival. The only one prepared to die for his principles was in fact Burger - and the story shows pretty harshly that his extreme position is also untenable; 'it would've suited you to be shot against a wall' points out Sorowitsch; the martyrs are as ineffective at changing an unfair system as those who go along complicit.

"And while the film didn't go anywhere near as far as you'd like in terms of investigating the humanity of the Nazis, their moral trials, it seemed to me that's what the scriptwriters were TRYING to do in parts - by showing Herzog's increasing desperation and sense of his own security under threat (even if they failed by succumbing to portraying horribly exaggerated stereotypes like Herzog's inane wife and children). The crux of the character arc was much like the story of Henry Sugar - the character we see at the beginning of the story would have played to win his ill-earned gains; the character we see at the end has (questionably) learned that it's blood money and needs to be lost. Classic Hollywood principles, I'm afraid, and whilst there was nothing about this film that was going to challenge those, the filmmakers are doing the same thing their characters are: simply making what the ruling majority - the mainstream paying cinemagoer - keeps asking for.

From Nikolai: "To defend a film on the basis that it is “what the cinema-going audience keep asking for” is nothing short of hypocrisy. You would never defend Harold and Kumar Get the Munchies on the same basis, nor would you stand up for “Scary Movie 4” because it’s what wa*ky American audiences love. Art is not measured by its popularity with the great unwashed, or by the receipts it takes in, but by its quality, originality, and capacity to move emotionally. While I disagree with Elodie, at least her argument was based around the fact that the film actually did something for her, even if I think she was rather naively taken in.

Nor does the argument “well, you’re just not Jewish or German, of course it’s not going to resound with you” hold water. Old family photographs might bring a tear to my eye because I was there, or I remember the people in them – but that doesn’t mean they’re art – it doesn’t mean I’m going to put them up at the National fu*king Gallery and pretend that they’re some sort of important statement because they made me cry. Films (and art in general) shouldn’t rely on a personal emotional connection from the viewer – certainly not if they are aimed at mass audiences.

As for the (scant) content of your argument, the idea that the Jewish characters were genuinely ambiguous is laughable. Sorowitsch is a cutey-pie hiding behind a hard-edged criminal façade. His treatment, constant care for, bartering for, and child-like rearing of Kolya is testament to this. His treatment of women is not shoddy at all – he doesn’t come across as a Bond-style misogynist, but rather someone who, through emotional scarring, has perhaps been unable to sustain long term relationships with the opposite sex. His loyalty to his friends in the prison environment is paramount throughout, as he defends Kolya when they first arrive at the death camp, and he even does his utmost to protect Burger, and indeed the other unfortunate inmate who gets shot for overhearing conversations between them in the shower scene. The guy couldn’t even spend the forged money after the war, even though it wasn’t really that ill-gotten, and we couldn’t have blamed him for enjoying it – that’s how great a guy he was. He is not a Shylock as you make him out to be, although the years of anti-semitism have clearly hardened him somewhat.

"Not once in the film do we see a Jewish character with any genuine moral ambiguity – rather we see pseudo-flaws that are as loveable as the genuine niceness in their characters. And I challenge you with Herzog to find a single scene, a single action, that was not borne out of psychopathic self-interest. “I manage people” – he says – very apt, since all his promises to Sorowitsch are false, and borne out of career minded selfishness. There is not a single feature that is likeable – all the way down to his OTT naïve wife and children. The other main Nazis around him are cruel sadistic animals – like other Nazis in films they are systematically dehumanised, we do not once see the person behind the mask.

"As for Professor007's missus' claims that even Burger could be seen as self-interested, these are clearly false. There is no way in the world that Burger could have believed that his actions would lead to an Allied victory and rescue prior to his demise. He must have known from the outset that, like Jesus before him, he would suffer under Pontius Pilate and be betrayed and denied like his own friends and comrades. But gaw-bless him he was willing to do it, because if you haven’t found something worth dying for, you haven’t found something worth living for – or some such hackneyed bullsh*t. In the end, it is his idealism that fully bring’s Sorowitsch’s good side out, tempered by a strong sense of realism.

"And unless you didn’t realise just how amazing Sorowitsch was – there’s an insulting end credit about how their heroic efforts delayed the Nazis in getting money and aided in their defeat – and god bless the Jews, they even felt guilty about the luxury they’d been living in when they met their fellow inmates, despite their great personal struggles and heroism.

"I’m sorry, but apart from its obvious flaws (the boredom, the half-hearted plot, the awful aesthetics, the sub-standard subplots, the poor framing), this film had not one shred of integrity or originality. It slots right in behind Schindler’s list as more pandering American wa*k that does nothing to examine the real causes of the holocaust, or the reality of Germany and Germans pre- and post-. And now I suppose you’re going to argue that Oscar Schindler was genuinely morally ambiguous?

"Thank goodness there are “harsh” film critics with such “very very very high” standards to redress the balance.

From Nikolai's missus: "Gosh. I hardly thought I was defending it, but perhaps I wasn't as clear as I might've been. My first paragraph was just responding to your point that "it doesn't surprise me that the harshest critics of this film in our little audience were the cynical Brits – and that the Germans, Austrians (and to some extent the lone Jew) are its apologists". It doesn't surprise me either; whilst your take on the film resounds with me wholeheartedly, I just wasn't sitting in the cinema thinking how shit the film was. I was squirming with the familiar anxiety that I get when watching or reading almost anything that convincingly evokes the period of the Holocaust. Which the film did (grainy filming and all). I envy your ability to be critically objective about it as a film; I just don't feel freed up with the same objectivity, I'm afraid.

"As for the moralising tone of the film, what I meant is that I thought the filmmakers tried to make it less simplistic, even if they failed. I'd be willing to bet good money that the screenwriters wrote the first pass of this thing with Burger in the lead role, then realised that it would be too heavy-handed with the moralising, and redrafted with the Sorowitsch character in the lead. I'd guess they were trying to construct his character with a dose of moral ambiguity - but do agree with your final analysis that simply failed, and in doing so, failed any audience looking for a more challenging story. Anyway, enough of this ... things to do... but good points well made Nik, as usual."

"From Our Dutch Correspondent: "The technical part of the film left quite a lot to be desired, photography was irritating at times, and otherwise uninspiring . Sound, make-upand the rest was pretty mediocre indeed. That leaves the script, which seems to be the main source of debate. The beginning detracts from the movie by betraying the end without adding something. The end was completely superficial, abrupt and incompetently filmed.

That leaves the bulk of the movie, which can be split in two parts. First, general holocaust misery, which for lack of originality, is reasonably competently told especially because you see relatively little of it, leaving some to the imagination. Most with some emotional attachment to the topic will still be moved even if there is little new to be seen. As the film almost exclusively focuses on people who are in a comparatively priviliged position, we actually get some emotional space to focus on the individuals in the story, an advantage over many other holocaust films. Even if the characters are not particularly well developed, they are well acted and as a result a number of stimulating themes do emerge.

First, motivating under duress: with absolute power wonders can be worked with the age old routines of carrot and stick, good cop brutal cop, combined with an appeal to professional pride. Second, hire well, with the right people, basic machinery, and rags you can make £137m in 1945 pounds, which inflation adjusted is quite a sum. As a city professional you can't but feel that in spite of all the nazi brutality, you still want them to beat the Bank of England, a subtle(or not so subtle?) moral dilemma to raise... Third, ideologues are useless unless kept under control by ruthless pragmatism. Vice versa, ruthless pragmatism is indeed amoral unless kept in check by a naive ideologue. Together, they make a good team. Yes, the scripted characters are perhaps a tad superficial, but the theme was well brought out and the message stands up to scrutiny. It's the balance of characters that makes for 'success' in this particular story and in most of history, the imbalance of such characters that makes for utter immorality or naive failure. Finally, it's a real story of yet another sub-plot in the larger war, which is interesting to know about. Overall, I'd be a bit more charitable and give it 3/5 for a real story I would not have wanted to have missed, decent acting unfortunately balanced by a mediocre script and bad execution."

From The Professor's Missus: "At the risk of being banal and pointing out the blindingly obvious, it's perhaps surprising that we're all looking for much moral ambiguity in a film whose back story is, afterall, genocide. There's only so far you can see things from the other side. It may be a cliché to portray concentration camp guards as cruel and sadistic, but what other appropriate adjectives spring to mind...?"

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