Most great films have pacing issues. Citizen Kane for all its deep focus grandeur, spins its wheels as Kane himself is rising to power, Taxi Driver speeds up and down with staccato irregularity, and Jules and Jim has a flaccid engine, at best, driving the tempo. Now, most of these examples—indeed, this is why they are great films—employ their faults in the service of some total effect.
Kane’s overemphasis on wealth accumulation drives home the magnitude and vacuity of affluence, Taxi Driver keeps the viewer uneasy in formative nod to Travis Bickle’s mental affliction, and Jules and Jim conjures the most effective air of ennui and malcontent ever captured on film. However, these stylistics decision, effective or not, still disrupt the viewing experience and can be called faults. A supremely polished film should be able to wield any theme or affect while still preserving a positive spectator relationship. (Brecht, be damned).
By this criterion, The Counterfeiters is a supremely polished film. It would be no excess whatsoever to assert that Ruzowitzky’s film might be one of the most adroitly paced pieces of all time. My evidence? A film about Jewish counterfeiters in a concentration camp never hangs for a second, keeps the viewer pressed to the screen without any heavy-handed appeals to “grab” attention, and hits every spot on the spectrum of film tempo (short of a Michael Bay action scene).
The inertia of long takes is balanced by a radiant, pitched emotion, the film arrives at the violent scenes ever-present in Holocaust films by way of crescendo rather than jump, and the bookend device of achronological time weaves an ethereal pulse throughout the entire movie. Every sequence feels very much alive and the film never loses its breath.
The plot of The Counterfeiters is an original one. Salmon “Sally” Sorowitsch (Markovics) is the “king” of forging currency until he is apprehended by Nazi SS. He wallows in the hard labor of concentration camps until he becomes recognized for his artistic talent, conscripted to paint portraits and murals of officers and their families. Soon he is brought into the Nazi “Project Bernhard”, by which the Third Reich plans to mass counterfeit British pounds and American dollars to upset the economy of both. Given pleasant living conditions and working with a band of other, similarly talented prisoners, Sally struggles with the ultimatum of help the Nazi’s win the war or face certain execution. Even if the counterfeiters do, somehow, survive the war they will have the indissoluble stigma of having been spared the horrors of concentration camp life at the price of aiding the enemy.
The masterstroke of the film is that, while being lightly stylized, its evocative character never interferes with its narrative one. Writ large in its pacing as discussed earlier, the film never trades audience engagement for effect. The Counterfeiters does not need to jar the viewer with erratic editing or milk pathos and despair with dead time. Through subtle touches of performance, a brilliant script full of passionate but not overstated dialogue, and a precise cinematography of shadows, the movie is surfeit with anguish without relying on spectator shock. Even the fast shutter and handheld camera disappear into the narrative and the traces of filmmaking are happily transparent for the wonderful story.
Now, this should not be considered a categorical dismissal of breaking with the viewer for effect. I absolutely respect this practice in Eisenstein, De Sica, Godard, etc. However, in these cases, such a tactic is used as a tenet of revolutionary cinema set out to change the medium and intellectually engage viewers. In the present day, these stylistics have become empty citations to past masters and a sheep’s clothing of “art” to pull over the wolf of sloppy filmmaking. Jarring film loses its élan vital when it becomes co-opted by mainstream cinema; breaking with the viewer stops being discourse about the nature of the medium and just becomes another, irritating, motif. The Counterfeiters is resplendent in its eschewal of such cheap tricks.
It is only fitting that such a hard-working film is matched by extensive, hard-working special features. Deleted scenes, making-of’s interviews, and dramaturgical notes fill out the disc and do well to treat the film’s historicity.