Stefan Ruzowitzky's The Counterfeiters, which won this year's Foreign Language Oscar and has just opened in American theaters, could be considered the black sheep of that large cinematic family known as the Holocaust movie. Based on a true, but little-known, episode of World War II history, the film dramatizes the Nazi counterfeiting program named "Operation Bernhard," in which prisoners in a walled-off area of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp worked to perfect bogus replicas of the British pound and the American dollar. And if certain aspects of The Counterfeiters — the slate-gray skies, the muddied prison stripes, the barking SS officers — seem to have been copied from the Schindler's List template, the characters are unmistakable originals. Rather than the nobly suffering merchants, artists and family men who fill the barracks of many a Holocaust drama, the counterfeiters of The Counterfeiters are a motley crew of scam artists and petty thugs under the supervision of the wily Russian-Jewish forger Salomon "Sally" Sorowitsch.
"I'm me and the others are others," Sorowitsch tells a Jewish client who begs him to do a favor for "our people" in one of the film's early, prewar scenes. And it's precisely that Darwinian worldview that got Ruzowitzky interested in Sorowitsch and his story, despite the director's initial reluctance to give the world yet another Holocaust movie.
"What I liked a lot was this idea of having a crook — a jailbird — in a concentration camp," Ruzowitzky, an exceedingly affable Austrian with a broad smile and an infectious laugh, said over a recent lunch at the Century Plaza Hotel. "So many of these Holocaust scholars, like Bruno Bettelheim and Primo Levi, were intellectuals with a bourgeois background, and for someone like that to come to a camp, it was outrageous and they couldn't see any structure to it. Somebody like Sally, who was coming to the camp from a prison, knew how to deal with wardens and how to establish himself within the hierarchy of other inmates. This was all quite complex, the different groups in the camps — the Jews, the Communists, the criminals. They all had their different rules and ways to survive, and the criminals were among those who had the best chances of surviving."
The Counterfeiters turns out to be nearly as irreverent in its way as Paul Verhoeven's recent Black Book, another fact-based, Nazi-themed drama with the engine of an action caper. And like Verhoeven, Ruzowitzky never allows the one-thing-after-another excitement of the film's narrative to dwarf the tragedy of its historical underpinnings, or vice-versa. But despite his aversion to the cliches of a well-worn movie subgenre, Ruzowitzky — a non-Jew with admitted Nazi Party members in his bloodline — nevertheless found himself falling for that enduring movie stereotype of the bookish, more-cultured-than-thou Jew in his early drafts of the Counterfeiters screenplay, which he adapted from the book The Devil's Workshop by real-life "Operation Bernhard" conscript Adolf Burger (who, now in his 90s, also served as a consultant on the film).
"If you say, 'Those Jews, they are more intelligent and more cultivated, they are somehow different from us,' that's racism as well, in a way," says Ruzowitzky. "I often wondered if I was Jewish whether I would have made a different movie. And I think maybe, for a Jewish filmmaker, it would have been more important to point out the tragedy of the Jewish people, whereas for me it was rather interesting to show that many of these people were average Germans — some educated, some not; some religious, some not. And just because they happened to have Jewish ancestors, they were put in a camp and bound to die. That was really the point for me. Therefore, it was important to me to be as far away as possible from these stereotypes."
As it happens, The Counterfeiters isn't the first time Ruzowitzky has made a movie about a top-down social structure as seen from its lower ranks. In his auspicious 1998 sophomore feature The Inheritors, a wealthy farmer wills his estate to be divided up evenly among his workers, who in turn find themselves at odds with both each other and the local landowning elite. Even Ruzowitzky's somewhat uncharacteristic forays into mainstream horror cinema, with the hugely successful (in Europe) German-language Anatomy and Anatomy 2, have preserved his interest in sociopolitical power structures, pitting their outsider protagonists against the nefarious activities of an age-old "anti-Hippocratic" society. Tinkering with received Holocaust orthodoxies, Ruzowitzky admits, was a considerably more delicate affair.
"The dogma says that these camps were a moral vacuum where you had no possibility to make moral choices, and so whatever you did in there, you are guilt-free," he says. "Once in a while, someone will say he doesn't like my movie because it goes against this dogma, and if this dogma falls there might be a whole lot of difficult questions to contend with. Generally, though, Jewish audiences like the film a lot."
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Born in Vienna but raised in Dusseldorf, the 46-year-old Ruzowitzky fell in love with the performing arts at an early age, when, in a Rushmore-like act of ostentation, he conceived and starred in an independent student theatrical production. At the time, Ruzowitzky was still in the fourth grade. Today, he is nearly as industrious a worker bee as Sally Sorowitsch himself, having already completed another feature — a German-language children's film called Lilli the Witch that he made as a gift of sorts for his two preteen daughters. He says he enjoys the challenges of adapting his working methods to different genres and styles of moviemaking. First and foremost, he thinks of himself as a craftsman, not an auteur, like the emigre directors who flourished under the old Hollywood studio system — an attitude he ascribes to his formative years making short documentaries and music videos for Austrian television.
"It was a perfect training ground, in terms of working professionally," he says. "You would get a camera team for one day, which meant eight hours plus lunch, and that was it. You couldn't say, 'Hey, let's shoot 10 hours more' and all that stuff people do in film school when they're working with their buddies."
It's hardly surprising, then, when Ruzowitzky tells me he looks forward to trying his hand at an American film (he speaks fluent English), despite the ill-fated experience he suffered on the 2001 cross-dressing comedy All the Queen's Men — an English-language, German-U.S. coproduction filmed in the U.K. and notable mainly for introducing Ruzowitzky to his Counterfeiters leading man, Karl Markovics.
"I don't see myself as the type of artist who has to wait for a couple of years until the muse is with me again," he says. "I've got family, and that's expensive, and I've got to do things. That's one of the advantages of having children — you don't have the time to ask yourself the big questions, like 'Why am I doing this?' You're doing this because you have to pay the rent."