The Counterfeiters

by robbiefreeling
February 21, 2008 5:13 AM
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Let's get it out of the way first: Stefan Ruzowitzky's The Counterfeiters was nominated for a Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar, controversially at the exclusion of a handful of borderline masterpieces, from Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days to the upcoming Silent Light and Secret Sunshine. Though it feels disingenuous to bring up the most notoriously boorish, nonsensically designed of all Academy Award categories when discussing a film's merits, perhaps it's productive to point out all the reasons why a film such as The Counterfeiters gets that slot over more difficult, rewarding, and harder to categorize films that would need the recognition to make any waves outside of small, cinephilic circles.

The Counterfeiters is the bread and butter of the Academy, not to mention film festival audiences everywhere, and as such, seems to have been designed solely to win plaudits: a Holocaust drama that effectively mixes raw, "realistic" violence with a narrative of moral uplift that prizes individual strengths, inferring that overcoming is possible; a main character who's just the right, ingratiating mix of stoic and rascally; a litany of latter-day Euro cinema-of-quality cliches predicated upon a central moral conundrum that grants the film its supposed complexity; a German filmmaker grappling with the demons of his own nation and family (Ruzowitzky's grandparents were Nazi collaborators) and daring to depict the impossible.

Click here to read Michael Koresky's review of The Counterfeiters.

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  • robbiefreeling | February 21, 2008 10:04 AMReply

    Thanks for your note. Perhaps the problem was all in my phrasing. It's true that I don't have hard box-office evidence to back up the suggestion that Holocaust films are smash hits, but I wasn't necessarily trying to make that point (and as I'm sure you've noticed over the years, as someone in the business, many critics usually have little idea how industry and distribution really functions...which must be sometimes maddening). The notion that something is a known quantity (or the "closest thing" to one, as I said) is supposed to be more of a reflection of the film's production and conception than its box office take; my sense is that The Counterfeiters is somewhat pre-packaged, especially in post-Schindler, post-Benigni art-house cinema, and that audiences know mostly what they're getting into, and that furthermore, Ruzowitzky's contrived, predictable technique does nothing to elevate the film from its generic trappings. I find Holocaust dramas, for the most part, to be generally exploitative, especially when given the sheen of import by the filmmaker who decrees that he's trying to "wrestle" with his national or familial past. It's opportunistic and does little more than garner international awards. So my criticisms are more of the filmmaker's intention than anything else. It's interesting to know that some of those Holocaust films make so little, yet I would still venture that those numbers are a lot greater than most of the smaller films that get released regularly. (Syndromes and a Century, Regular Lovers, I Don't Want to Sleep Alone.... none of which have the imprimatur of "importance" to buoy them to even moderate success.)

  • mt | February 21, 2008 9:55 AMReply

    Hi Michael,

    I just read your article today on THE COUNTERFEITERS. I have yet to see the film but I imagine you’ve hit the nail on the head for most of your points, as many of the reviews I have read point to similar critiques.

    However, I was a bit perplexed by your claim that “though once Holocaust dramas were considered something of a tough sell, for art-house crowds this genre is the closest thing to a known quantity.” Recent box office history would negate this, and if anything point the opposite way. While the late 90’s and early 00’s brought commercial success to large studio films like SCHINDLER’S LIST, LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL and THE PIANIST, Holocaust related dramas released in art houses have had a tougher road to plow. The critically acclaimed and Oscar nominated SOPHIE SCHOLL did only $700K, ROSENSTRASSE did less than $750K, and we experienced a similar box office disappointment with FATELESS doing barely $250K. Even Verhoeven’s BLACK BOOK, which was aimed at art houses with the intention of crossing over, has to be considered a major disappointment grossing less than $5 million after having a budget of nearly $20M.

    Clearly, the Holocaust dramas that have success seem to be much bigger releases that of course play well in art houses, but make the bulk of their money from playing in commercial theaters nationwide. As such, they remain a tough sell even to art house crowds. Fortunately, they are being well received by those who do seek them out.