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February 22, 2008.
Just when you think
everything that happened during the Holocaust has been chronicled, another
film appears based on a true story that offers another look at that horrible
experience in a way which hasn't quite been seen before. So it's no wonder
this Austrian film The Counterfeiters got nominated for the Foriegn
Based on the published memoir of Adolf Burger, it details the experience of
Salomon "Sally" Sorowitsch, a masterful member of the criminal underground,
who, upon being sent to a German concentration camp, agrees to help the
Nazis in their organized counterfeit operation — "Operation Bernhard" — set
up to finance the war effort against the Allies. Through a brilliant
performance by veteran actor Karl Markovics,
Burger, one of Sorowitsch's fellow detainees (played in the film by August
Diehl) captures many of the traumatic decisions these prisoners grappled
with; help the Nazis and live or sabotage their efforts and die. In this
cinematic telling of this gripping drama, director Stefan Ruzowitzky (The
Inheritors) documents the inner war within the counterfeit workshop
against the backdrop of the Reich's final months while wrestling with
complicated issues of morality and survival.
Though both Ruzowitzky and Markovics aren't Jewish, they offered insights
into the impact of the emotional and psychological depravity wrought by the
Holocaust. A favorite to win the Academy Award, it's no wonder the film was
a hit at the Berlin, Telluride and Toronto International Film Festivals last
You both made this film from the perspective of someone who isn't
Jewish... of not being someone who has the same imposing sense of that
experience and that definitely lent the film a different perspective.
Stefan Ruzowitzky: The thing that struck me was that these
[prisoners] are actually Germans. I tried to stay away from every cliché,
[even] positive clichés, that all Jews are intellectuals and cultivated and
wise people because this is something I learned from Alfred Burger's book as
well, that the people he'd been together with, they were Jewish blue-collar
workers, Jewish Prussian bankers and for me that was rather an interesting
thing. So here's a group of Germans and just because they have Jewish
ancestors they're put in a camp and the Nazis want to kill them; that's that
insane concept I've been thinking about a lot, and that struck me in a way.
It's also when Adolph Burger is asked whether he still hates the Germans or
whether he has problems with the Germans, he always says no because he'd
been in the camps together with so many Germans, German Jews [yes]—these
were people from Hamburg and Munich, whatever—but they were Germans as well,
so for him it wasn't Germans on one side in the uniforms and Jews on the
other. There were Germans on both sides.
And Karl, what about from your point of view?
Karl Markovics: For me it was much easier, because playing a Jew
never mattered to me because this character doesn't care about his
Jewishness at all. So it was much more [about] the point of why human beings
treat other human beings like that, and under what conditions. This was the
most interesting point for me and I hope that we will one day come to the
point that it doesn't matter at all anymore. At that time, [when] the story
[takes place], it mattered too much, today it still matters very much in
Austria and Germany, but there are not so many Jews left. On the other hand
there weren't so many at that time as well. This when I first heard about I
really thought I can't believe this, that only 0.8% of the German population
in 1933 were Jews. This small amount of population should be responsible for
all the evil happening to the German race? This number drove me crazier than
other facts of this part of our history.
How do you explain that it happened to so many people, yet their role in
society was so blown out of proportion?
Karl Markovics: It's only possible because of several centuries of an
ongoing tradition of having a minority within the [majority] population to
blame for anything you want. It's kind of a fashion, sometimes to protect
them and sometimes, the governors, the kings, the dukes and so on would
persecute them for any reason. Of course, [these reasons include everything
from] Christian ideas of they killed Jesus to the fact that they often were
really well skilled and well educated. The thing was that they often had a
lot of money because they were forced to only do jobs as bankers and the
economy stuff and then the people blamed them for that. So it's really
weird, but it seems to be human [is] to look for a minority you can blame
for everything. There was one famous line in one of my favorite American
novelist's books, Annie Proulx. In Accordion Crimes she writes that
even if there hadn't have been the African-American population in the States
there would have been an ongoing civil war between the Polish, Germans,
Scandinavian immigrants, but they all had the Blacks to look down on and to
kick and to feel better and this we did to our Jews.
It's an interesting permutation that your character is a criminal. His
alliance is less with the Jewish community and more with the criminal
underground. You successfully showed another side to this when these
different classes of people together were thrown together. That gave you an
opportunity to play the role with a unique outlook, and, for you, to direct
him with a unique point of view.
Stefan Ruzowitzky: From the very beginning [that's] what intrigued me
the most, the pitch of having a counterfeiter in a concentration camp, which
is just a great pitch, a counterfeiter who's somebody who's betraying
somebody, who's manipulating reality and without knowing the details I
thought right away, well that's interesting. Will he be able to manipulate
reality in the camps? Will he be able to betray himself and things like
that? On top of that I felt it was very interesting, or it would be a
completely new perspective because all the autobiographies that we know
[about the camps] by Bruno Bettelheim, Primo Levy, all these were written by
people with an intellectual, bourgeoisie background, an academic background,
and here we have somebody who's sort of trained to survive and survive well
within a prison. Of course a concentration camp isn't a normal prison but
still he would know how to get along within the hierarchy of the inmates and
all these things. Doing research on the concentration camps I did find out,
[that] there were many criminals in the camps and they usually got along
much better and survived better because they were better at organizing
themselves for food and good jobs and all these things with a mix of
betraying, stealing, and just performing their skills. So I felt, well,
that's an interesting new perspective that I haven't heard about that
To play a criminal who wasn't just an obvious hero was an extra wrinkle
Karl Markovics: Yes, definitely. That was the point for me, because
he's sort of a lonesome wolf. He thinks of himself as a lone wolf and that
he doesn't belong to all the others, all the rest of the world outside. [He
thinks] "I need them, I use them, but I stay on my own" and suddenly at once
in the concentration camp he's forced to belong to others because he's a
Jew. He's suddenly forced to be responsible for others, too, if he wants to
or not because his skills decide whether they will live for a certain time,
at least, or if they will be killed at once if he doesn't manage to make the
pounds and the dollars. So, he is forced to start socializing for the first
time in his life.
He's challenged with a moral dilemma that he wouldn't ordinarily be
Karl Markovics: Right.
The film is morally complex. On the one hand you have a character that
advocates the idea of not helping the Nazi war effort but at the same time
there's the logic of wanting to stay alive and doing what you can to do to
survive; what were the challenges in presenting that point of view?
Stefan Ruzowitzky: The idea was to balance all that as well as
possible in terms of not saying there is a right way and there is a wrong
way. The idea was that you would watch Sally and say, "yeah, probably, I
would have done the same thing" and then you'd hear Burger talking about
principles and that the Nazis wouldn't have a chance if people would stick a
little bit more to the principles and you say, "yes I agree completely," but
you also understand the guy who said "I almost died a dozen times. I just
want to go on living." I just wanted to show that everybody's right in a way
and everybody's causing some special problems with their approach. Initially
I thought that audiences would fall much more for Burger because he's sort
of the typical hero with his ideals, so we have some scenes which show his
dark side as well, but then pretty early on I found out that the opposite
was the case. People love Sally because they can identify with him, because
that's what we all are doing, just sort of trying to get along somehow and
it's not always 100% correct. But we try to be good people which sometimes
works and sometimes doesn't. Whereas people like Burger, the movie character
not the real person, we admire them to a certain extent because they're
radical and idealistic, but at the same time they're boring and we all know
that they don't succeed with their big ideals and that often leads to even
Moral ambiguity is always more interesting than dogmatism.
Stefan Ruzowitzky: Yes and the interesting thing is I had one
screening in New York for the National Board of Review and there was a
couple of Cuban immigrants there. They said that when they saw him in the
first scene, recognized him right away because he was just the typical
Communist, saying "I have my ideals and I'm ready to die for my ideals and
I'm also ready for other people to die for my ideals." That's enough of a
dark side for Burger, so we didn't use these scenes I was referring to
because I felt he's negative enough in the eyes of many people.
Did you do certain things to create this character without being too
obvious and was the moral ambiguity a challenge for you?
Karl Markovics: It's hard [to say] because I don't really know how to
explain the process of acting, because I don't know myself. It happens. It
sounds stupid, but it is a little bit like that. One always tries to find
the symbols or analogies to explain something. So I could talk on for half
an hour, but wouldn't really say anything clever or smart. I don't know. It
was a challenge... a challenge for me in itself, to do this. The biggest
challenge was could I be able to put away my personal feelings, my feeling
of "am I allowed to play a Jew as a non-Jew?... To put away my historical
knowledge about this time, all the things we heard at school or I read in
books, because the guy I play doesn't give a shit about all this, he has no
political sense and is not aware of his Jewishness; he is what he is, I am
what I am and that was the biggest challenge... To be sure when we started
shooting, not to care about all this, just make it happen.
You bookended the film with an opening scene with a woman and the last
scene with a woman. What did you have in mind and was that for you to give
you him someone different to play against?
Stefan Ruzowitzky: From the very first idea and treatment I had this
frame and there were some clever people who said you shouldn't do that,
you're taking away a lot of suspense by showing that he stays alive. This
could be a big suspense thing and actually it was much later, actually some
interviews helped me to find out that what's happening here is the movie
actually starts with the ultimate happy ending: there's a guy after six
years in concentration camps, he's sitting on the beach of the Cote D'Azur
with a beautiful woman and a suitcase full of money and then he asks
himself, "why me? Did I come to close to evil? Did I compromise too
much?" This is actually what the movie is about and it's not that sort of
cheap thrill of "he's a Jew in the camp, is he going to survive or not?" but
it's rather about the how [of his survival] and I think that's far more
elegant than it would have been without the frame.
Is that why you decided to film this as more of an adventure story,
almost like a film noir?
Stefan Ruzowitzky: I wanted to make an accessible movie, a movie for
people of my generation who are not [feeling] guilty because we have been
born years after the war and I wanted to invite them to be interested in
that period of time because it's worthwhile to think about it. So I tried to
make an accessible movie which is emotional and suspenseful but not with the
kind of suspense of "are they going to descend into the gas chambers or
not;" that kind of cliffhanger would be disgusting. It's about other things,
[and that's] where the suspense lies.
Was it a pleasure to work with those two actresses?
Karl Markovics: It was a pleasure definitely, in different ways. Of
course it was a pleasure because it was a pleasure, but also [there was] the
opportunity that I really felt this clash of dimensions personally — we were
shooting all these [glamorous] scenes before we went onto the concentration
camp scenes. So we had been in Monte Carlo and it's at the Mediterranean sea
[we're there] with this beautiful suit and dresses in the casino; and we did
all this and then there was a short weekend and then [there we were] on
Babelsberg Studios lot with the prefabricated barracks and we started in the
[concentration] camp. It was sort of, you know, there is a cut in your life
and you can't imagine [it being] deeper. I felt a little bit like this
working the first morning before we started shooting with all my memories of
the Mediterranean and Dolores Chaplin and Marie Bäumer, the only two girls
in this movie, [fresh in my mind]. It was such a short time and then [we
started] going on to the real story.
Then there is the "real" unreality of this whole Oscar nomination thing.
Karl Markovics: Yes absolutely. It seems fake as well. You can't
believe there's really an Oscar. I'm sure it's chocolate [inaudible].
Did it catch you by surprise?
Stefan Ruzowitzky: Not really, because of the short list. You know
you have this short list with nine movies [on it from which they pick the
Oscar nominees for the international award].
Karl Markovics: I didn't know. You did? I was surprised.
Stefan Ruzowitzky: So you're kind of prepared, and I think you know
if you're among these last nine and then you don't make it among these last
five, that's really frustrating. Now of course I want to win but okay, if
you don't win you can't help it you know, but being among the last nine but
not among the last five must be really shitty.
Is there anyone you want to talk with or something special you want to do
at the Oscars?
Stefan Ruzowitzky: It's funny... It's similar to when a movie is
premiering and you have this red carpet situation. When you're there on the
red carpet in that situation they make you feel like you're the most
important person in the world and then one minute later you meet the same
journalists in the bathroom and nobody gives a shit about you. It's like a
play and you have your role, which is smiling on the red carpet as they
shout "Stefan, Stefan look here" and you look there and it works only in
that very moment and not later on and it's fun.
Karl Markovics: I want to meet Governor Schwarzenegger, my former
fellow Austrian citizen.
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