Stefan Ruzowitsky has an appealingly modest take on his sudden ascent to art-house respectability. He’s quick to point out that his previous film, “Anatomy,” was a horror feature crafted for “a young, popcorn-eating crowd.” Yet the Austrian writer/director of this year’s Oscar-winning foreign film, “The Counterfeiters,” feels that his experience with lowly genre fare served him well.
“The most effective horror is the one you don’t have to show onscreen,” he explained. “It’s the horror that goes on in your head. I think that’s why this particular setup works. We don’t see so much but we hear it and we know it and it’s more effective than gore and blood and killing onscreen.”
The Counterfeiters (Die Fälscher)
Karl Markovics, August Diehl, David Striesow, Veit Stübner, Sebastian Urzendowsky
(Sony Pictures Classics; US theatrical: 22 Feb 2008 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 12 Oct 2007 (General release); 2007)
“The Counterfeiters” is inspired by the true story of Operation Bernhard, a Nazi concentration camp work detail under orders to undermine the economies of Britain and the United States by forging massive amounts of currency. The film explores the dilemma faced by prisoners whose lives depended on furthering Germany’s war effort - or at least sabotaging it invisibly. It is notable for its rounded portraits of both the war’s victims and villains. Ruzowitsky’s central character is a Jewish career criminal; the SS officer in charge is an apolitical opportunist.
“There is no moral ambiguity on my side - that there are good Nazis and bad Nazis, good Jews and bad Jews - that would be awful. It is clear the Nazis are the bad guys,” said Ruzowitsky, whose grandparents were Nazi sympathizers. “But it’s interesting to learn why they did these things. Just to say Nazis are evil because they’re Nazis doesn’t make much sense.
“On the other hand, I think it makes the Jews more interesting if they’re not flawless victims. If they’re human beings making mistakes I think it makes them more sympathetic; you can relate to them better.”
That fresh perspective is possible now because of a generational shift in Austrian audiences, he said. “In the `60s and `70s, we had many people in leadership who came from a Nazi background, so it was important to confront this society with their guilt.
“My audience, people like me, the grandchildren, we are not guilty of anything. And so I rather try to invite these new generations to be interested in these issues.”
The film poses difficult questions about the actions of Operation Bernhard’s supervisor, who looked after the welfare of his valuable prisoners.
“We had the last two survivors visiting the set and they would be arguing whether this guy was a murderer or whether he saved their lives. One said he was a killer because he was responsible for the deaths of six of our comrades. The other guy said if it hadn’t been for him, all 147 would be dead, which is probably true as well.”
The man never went to prison because many of the counterfeiters testified in his favor at his trial. He was never punished, opened a business and lived happily ever after.
Ruzowitsky, the first Austrian to win an Academy Award, doesn’t expect to continue his career in his native country, where only half a dozen features are produced annually.
His first post-Oscar project is a publicity piece for “an awards show somewhere in Dubai. It’s about a Muslim hero who was a friend of Muhammad. It’s a two-minute battle scene so it’s very interesting to do it. Commercials are about lying, and feature films are about telling the truth. Everyone knows this, and an elegant lie is honest; everyone knows the world is not the way it’s presented in commercials. If you do too much of that everything starts to blur and you don’t know any longer what is authentic and what is not. But the point is, it’s work. I’ve been doing so much P.R. work and festivals for the movie, and it’s always great and nice hotels and wonderful food. But you don’t earn any money!”