Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Fake goods

The Austrian nominee for Best Foreign-Language Film this year doesn't bode well for this oft-challenged category, which has taken it on the chin for failing to recognize the more obviously plaudit-worthy 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and other titles that slipped under the nominator radar. The fact-based account The Counterfeiters, which Sony Pictures Classics opens this Friday, has an intriguing mix of elements--flim-flammery, Nazis, the Holocaust--that fail to click. It may be that writer-director Stefan Ruzowitky has done his job too conscientiously.

Cast as Salomon Sorowitsch, a Russian Jew whose great skill as a counterfeiter was exploited by the Third Reich as he and a group of fellow reprobates languished in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, is Karl Markovics. Well before his character's imprisonment, the actor (pictured) looks so much the part of an untrustworthy rat it's difficult to build much sympathy or interest in him once he's in the klink, turning out false dollars and pounds for Hitler. A George Clooney type would have gone too far in the other direction, but surely a more charismatic James Woods-ian actor might have played the part (perhaps such a model is lacking in Austria).

With no one in particular to root for, the movie has to rely on its central caper to generate a little heat. "Sally" and his gang, who fear that their criminal expertise might cripple the Allied currency markets and tilt the war in Germany's favor, continually bluff and stall their jailers. And so the temperature rises, but the flame only flickers at low. We're far away from the era of POW adventures like The Great Escape, but the film is paralyzed by the corrective example of Schindler's List. Ruzowitzky, thankfully, isn't Roberto Benigni, mucking around for cheap sentiment in the ashes a la Life is Beautiful--nor is he quite the same Ruzowitky who has the odd World War II espionage flick All the Queen's Men (2001), with Matt LeBlanc and Eddie Izzard donning drag to filch secrets, on his resume. Sobriety suits the story being told. But the pace is too slow (and the cinematography too grainy) for much interest to build, and I felt like I was handcuffed during 98 minutes that should have gone down as precisely as a well-executed pickpocketing operation.

It may be that the familiar elements that make up The Counterfeiters, a perfectly ordinary kind of art-house failure, were reassuring to the selection committee, who may have been looking for something comparable to last year's The Lives of Others. On its own limited terms, it's watchable if unedifying. As an Academy Award nominee, it's a phony.

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