'Counterfeiters' true Holocaust story in foreign film race


"Counterfeiters" conversation: With so many movies having already been made about the Holocaust you'd think filmmakers would have exhausted all possible storylines a long time ago.

That's not the case, however, as Stefan Ruzowitzky's "The Counterfeiters" makes clear. Opening Feb. 22 in New York and Los Angeles via Sony Pictures Classics, "Counterfeiters" is Austria's official selection in the 2007 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar race. The film, shown last fall at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals, provides a fresh approach to the Holocaust as movie material with its true story of one death camp inmate whose professional abilities as an expert forger made him a particularly valuable prisoner. Unlike typical Holocaust-based films, this one isn't about innocent victims. Instead, it centers on a master criminal forger who managed to survive in the camps because it was in the Nazis' best interest to keep him alive and working on their behalf.

Based on the book "The Devil's Workshop" by Adolf Burger, the film is the true story of Salomon Smolianoff (called Salomon Sorowitsch or Sally for short in the film and played very well by Karl Markovics), who fell into Nazi hands when they were trying to counterfeit British pounds and American dollars to finance the war and ruin those countries' economies. Salomon was already known to the German authorities as a brilliant forger and when the Nazis realized they now had him they quickly put him to work in the best possible environment under the circumstances.

Written and directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky ("Anatomy," "All the Queens Men"), it was produced by Josef Aichholzer of Aichholzer Filmproduktion and by Nina Bohlmann and Babette Schroder of Magnolia Filmproduktion GmbH. The R rated film was picked up by Sony Pictures Classics after it was shown at the 2007 Berlin Film Festival. "Berlin was wonderful for us," Ruzowitzky told me. "The movie was in competition in Berlin last year. There it was sold to more than 60 countries. One of them was the United States with Sony. I knew Michael Barker (co-president of SPC with Tom Bernard) and had hoped for them to pick up the movie. So I was very happy that we got Sony as a partner."

Asked how the film came about, Ruzowitzky recalled, "The funny thing was that there were two producers approaching me with the same story more or less within a couple of days independent from one another. That made me feel it was a sign from above or something like that so I introduced them to one another and this is how this Austrian-German co-production came about."

Were they both presenting the same material for his consideration? "The German producers had bought the rights to the book by Adolf Burger," he explained. "But for me the intriguing thing right away was the pitch of a counterfeiter in a concentration camp. It's his autobiography mainly about the time when he was fighting for the resistance and when he was in Auschwitz and (was part of) the counterfeiters' unit. A counterfeiter in a concentration camp -- that's an interesting pitch. The idea of having a crook-gangster-jailbird in a camp I felt right away was a perspective I never heard before. That's interesting. That's something new.

"I always said the only thing I'd never do was a concentration camp movie. And still, I think, that 'The Counterfeiters' is an adventure movie or a morality play or a caper movie set in a concentration camp rather than a concentration camp movie by genre because the situations these people are in are very different from what we know from other movies or very different from the life and situation of normal concentration camps. Not only do my protagonists have privileges concerning food and clothing, but they also have the privilege to make to a small extent moral decisions.

"Therefore, I felt, this is a story today's audience can relate to and (one) where they can identify with these people in terms of, 'What would I do? What would I think in this situation?' I think this situation is so extreme that you can't as an audience say, 'What would I do if I was in his place?' And this is why I think it's so difficult or almost impossible to make these movies."

The proposals to Ruzowitzky to bring this material to the screen were made about four years ago. "I was, of course, aware that this is a very sensitive issue, especially in Germany and Austria," he said, "and that you can (make) an incredible lot of mistakes with the best of intentions. For example, normally you have a character arc with somebody who's changing for the better during the events of the story whereas here this was a difficult thing because you can't come across with a message that those like Sally who survived the camps at least became better people.

"That's why the last line (in the film) is very important for me where he says, 'I'm going to counterfeit money again' to show he did not become a better person in terms of what we feel is a good citizen. Of course, he has changed, but the concentration camp is not a place where you become a better person."

Asked about the process of writing the screenplay, Ruzowitzky pointed out, "It was the usual problems you have when you're writing a script that's based on (a book). Your first draft is very close to the material, very close to the actual events. And then you start making adaptations to make it a working screenplay. I was happy to have Adolf Burger, one of the survivors of the counterfeiters unit, as a story consultant. Initially, I had been a little bit nervous about how this process could turn out to be because it could be a catastrophe having somebody who was actually there (in the camp) working with you and saying, 'Well, no, I did not say this word' and things like that.

"But it turned out that Burger was very good to work with because for decades his mission in life has been to make lectures in schools, mainly, and to tell his story again and again. And he knows that in order to be heard you have to tell your story in a way that people will listen. So he was very eager to say, 'Well, yeah, let's do this, do that, if it's better for the screen.' But sometimes he was very strict and said, 'No, you can't do that. That wouldn't be truthful any more.' Of course, I was very happy to have somebody like him by my side and not just a board of historians or something like that."

Adapting the lengthy book and its true story into a movie that runs 98 minutes wasn't easy: "It was mainly about sort of straightening up the chain of events and making one movie character out of three or four real life characters to make it better for the audience to understand. But all these details like operetta music being played to them all day long (to drown out the screams of other prisoners being tortured nearby!) -- all this is authentic. You couldn't make up something like that. You wouldn't dare to make up something like that."

The film takes place mostly in the Sachsenhausen deathcamp, where two barracks were separated from the rest of the camp for use as a fully equipped workshop for what was called "Operation Bernhard" and revolved around counterfeiting dollars and pounds. "Our main set was the counterfeiters' barracks," he said. "We built these barracks on the studio lot in Berlin's Babelsberg, where they have this huge traditional studio lot. The original barracks aren't there any more in Sachsenhausen and on top of that you're usually for good reasons not allowed to film in former concentration camps.

"And at Mauthausen -- the camp Sally was in at first, which is in Austria -- we only were allowed to shoot outside and have the buildings in the background. They won't let you actually work there, which makes sense. Initially, I was a little bit angry (about that), but being there you understand that it doesn't fit together (to have) a film crew working in an actual former concentration camp."

Studio Babelsberg, he noted, "was one of the financiers (of the film). They don't give money, but they supply you with the facilities. (They provided) construction teams and we did the final mixing (there). So you get virtual money from them, but all this money you have to spend there."

In building the camp set for the film, he explained, "Having studied the history, I know that it's impossible to recreate history and that it's impossible to have an objective view on the past. When Mr. Burger and Mr. Plappler, another survivor, were visiting the set they would start to argue right away whether the beds had been made of wood or metal and whether they were two stories high or three stories high. I think these things aren't really that important.

"Of course, you try to be as authentic as possible, but at the same time it's my vision and I think it's more honest to say, 'Well, this is the vision of an Austrian writer-director at the beginning of the 21st Century' and not to say, 'Well, this is a hundred percent authentic and everything is the way it's shown here' because this often is an excuse not to think about the political impact such a movie has because you always, 'Well, but everything was like that,' which is not always true. So I think it's better to be aware of that. It's a feature film. That's what Adolf Burger always says when he's asked. He always says, 'It's not a documentary.' He made a documentary. This is a feature film, which is truthful, but it's not a documentary."

Shooting a film in such grim circumstances as a recreated death camp was certainly a difficult environment to work in. "Yes, of course, it is," Ruzowitzky agreed. "On the other hand, I think what helps you a lot is that there are all these technical pragmatic questions that you have to address. As a director you come to the set and you have to say, 'Well, we'll put the camera here and this costume is fine and the extras are over there' whether it's a comedy or a Holocaust movie. There were two moments when I remember I got sort of emotional during shooting the movie. One was when we shot the scene where these normal inmates would enter the workshop (and see the markedly better living conditions for the prisoners who were working as counterfeiters). You could sense that the whole crew was quiet and full of respect. And then we shot that scene. When we were done, they would take out their cell phones and chocolate bars from their pockets and (that) reminded us that they were extras -- with makeup and costumes, but extras.

"The other moment was when Burger and Plappler were visiting us on the set and suddenly we became aware that this is more than just a movie. We were actually reconstructing an environment where some of their friends had been killed, where they had been tortured for a couple of years and there definitely is a bigger responsibility (as filmmakers). When you're reading documents or the biographies this is part of the process where you're shattered as you read about all these unbelievable things."

Looking back at production, he noted, "What we did, and this actually was a wonderful process, was we rehearsed a lot -- almost for a month with the whole ensemble -- because the idea was to shoot the movie like a documentary (using) documentary style handheld camera to give the audience the feeling that they are there with our protagonists. So we were rehearsing a lot and then had a very short shooting time. For the first time in my life -- and probably it's going to be the last one, as well -- I was fighting for having (fewer) shooting days. We did it in 31 days.

"I felt it was important to keep the momentum (going). If you have too much time you're losing it and you start (saying things like), 'Make the light more perfect' and (doing) another shot and maybe one more perspective. That would have weakened that momentum and so we were rushing through the script, which was a good thing. It was wonderful because it was all about staging and working with the actors and technical problems didn't take over the way they usually do."

With "Counterfeiters" competing now in the best foreign language film Oscar race, I asked Ruzowitzky if he's pleased, to which he replied, "I'm more than pleased. I'm thrilled! For me, a nomination or an award by an academy always is something that has quite a big value because, you know, at a festival where there are six or seven people on a jury you can be lucky or unlucky, but in an academy you have hundreds of the most accomplished filmmakers, actors and craftsmen that you have admired all your professional life and if they say you made one of the best movies of the year that means a lot to me."

Filmmaker flashbacks: Increasingly, it's the marketing of movies that tips the boxoffice scales one way or the other. While it helps to have a film of high quality, tickets don't get sold unless moviegoers are persuaded to show up at the boxoffice.

"With competition in the marketplace already fierce during the summer and holiday seasons and with spring and fall now developing into lucrative and, therefore, highly competitive periods as well, it's more difficult than ever for marketers to make their messages stand out from the clutter and get across to moviegoers. No wonder Hollywood is busy trying to find new ways to market its product.

"Along those lines, several studios have recently been experimenting with direct mail. 20th Century Fox launched 'Miller's Crossing' in New York with a limited regional mailing of a beautifully produced four-color brochure about the film. On a larger scale, Warner Bros. is using direct mail on behalf of 'Memphis Belle' to send $1 discount postcards to 700,000 people ... As a unit of Time Warner, Warners was able to put together a direct mail list for 'Memphis,' a film set during World War II, by going through lists of people who had previously bought Time Life books or home videos dealing with World War II themes...

"At a time when network television's audience share is declining and media costs in general are escalating, Hollywood stands to benefit from developing innovative alternative marketing channels..."

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com.