I’ve been keeping close track, and I will now be the 358th member of the commentariat, thus far in 2008, to observe that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is hopelessly screwed up when it comes to honoring foreign films. Even judging by the checkered history of the foreign-language Oscars (which I’ve discussed here and here), this year has been peculiar. Let’s review, if we can.
Come to think of it, the original problem is their fault too. Can anyone explain to me why Russia and France and China and India — the major counter-Hollywood film-producing nations — get to designate one Oscar contender each, the same number available to Kyrgyzstan and the Solomon Islands and Guinea-Bissau, along with other nations whose film-production equipment is customarily used to roast goat meat? It’s a scheme that’s virtually guaranteed to produce weird and depressing choices, especially when you throw in the academy’s innate preference for pretty, earnest message movies. Maybe the nominations of “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “The Lives of Others” last year were more a historical fluke than a harbinger of change. (We could talk about the idiocy of disqualifying “The Band’s Visit” for having too much English dialogue, when the point of the film was to show how difficult it is for Arabs and Israelis to communicate, but let’s move on.)
Give the Russians credit for figuring out how to game this flawed and corrupt system (they’ve had lots of experience with that), and essentially winding up with two nominated films this year. Sure, Sergei Bodrov’s “Mongol” was officially submitted by Kazakhstan — hold the Borat jokes, please — but give me a break. If the Kazakh government sold all its remaining assets on the black market, right down to the fleet of 1983 Lada Classics and the ministers’ wives monogrammed French underwear, it couldn’t have raised the budget for Bodrov’s spectacular Genghis Khan biopic.
OK, so “Diving Bell” and “Persepolis” and every other French film got dinged this year, and so did “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” which was the official Romanian selection, has performed fairly well at the box office (all things considered), and has been universally embraced by the cave-dwelling art-movie enthusiasts of our hemisphere. One could be cynical and say that was precisely the problem, but the truth is that “4 Months” just isn’t an academy-ready film: It’s short on grand spectacle, short on romance, mighty short on attractive scenery (unless 1987 Bucharest lights your fire) and entirely bereft of up-with-people messaging.
So here’s what we’ve got: One tremendously absorbing and only mildly flawed Holocaust-related thriller, which, incredibly enough, unearths an aspect of life and death in the Nazi camps we’ve never seen on screen before. That film is Austrian director Stefan Ruzowitzky’s “The Counterfeiters,” and you can bet the ranch on it. Three of the other four nominees feel like honorifics for aging veterans of Eastern European cinema: Bodrov (nominated in 1996 for “Prisoner of the Mountains”), his fellow Russian Nikita Mikhalkov (who won the ’95 Oscar for “Burnt by the Sun”) and 82-year-old Polish film giant Andrzej Wajda (already the winner of an honorary Oscar in 2000). The final film is a sleeper, and a pretty big surprise: “Beaufort,” the mesmerizing and somewhat controversial war film by a young, American-born Israeli director.
“The Counterfeiters” (Austria; written and directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky) Let’s jump out of alphabetical order to highlight the odds-on favorite, which opens this week in New York and Los Angeles. An exciting and elegantly made World War II thriller whose most interesting elements are under the surface, “The Counterfeiters” is anchored in the performance of lantern-jawed Viennese actor Karl Markovics as Salomon Sorowitsch, a fast-living and successful counterfeiter of Weimar-era Berlin who is supremely uninterested in his own Jewishness or in the rise of those irritating, overly earnest Nazis. (Sorowitsch’s character is loosely based on a historical figure named Salomon Smolianoff, although the details of his story are fictional.)
Needless to say, all that changes when Sorowitsch is busted in 1936 by an ambitious Berlin detective named Herzog (Devid Striesow) and sent to the Mauthausen concentration camp. He’s there as a criminal, not as a Jew, but he’s a Jew nonetheless, and he quickly understands how that identity places him in peril. Sorowitsch is first and foremost a calculating survivor, who gives no impression of caring overmuch about his fellow prisoners and co-religionists. He thrives in Mauthausen by painting flattering portraits of the Nazi officers and their families, and then gets shipped to Sachsenhausen, where his old nemesis Herzog, now an SS officer, has been put in charge of “Operation Bernhard,” a secret military project. Its aim is to create perfect counterfeits of English pound notes and American dollar bills, with the simultaneous aim of fueling the Nazi war machine and flooding the Allied economies with fakes.
In Markovics’ subtle portrayal, Sorowitsch is shrewd and selfish but never unlikable, and Ruzowitzky gradually draws a web of moral conundrums around him that no viewer can avoid thinking about. Even though the setting is a concentration camp and not a saloon, there are hints of “Casablanca” to “The Counterfeiters,” not least because of Sorowitsch’s bon-vivant hard shell. Along with the other Jewish bankers, printers and artists recruited for Bernhard, Sorowitsch gets special privileges — they sleep on ordinary beds, eat reasonable rations and wear civilian clothes, while in the camp around them other inmates starve in filthy conditions, are beaten for any reason or none at all, and are indiscriminately (or systematically) murdered. Do the men in the “golden cage” have a responsibility to help others, at risk to themselves? Or is staying alive and bearing witness enough?
As Sorowitsch sneers to one of his idealistic camp-mates: “I won’t give the Nazis the satisfaction of being ashamed that I’m alive.” Yet we can see him struggling with his conscience: Forging perfect pounds and dollars is a matter of professional pride, Nazis or no. But as 1944 turns to 1945, Sorowitsch is smart enough to understand that delaying the fake banknotes by weeks or months could prove decisive as the Allied armies close in on Germany. And even he can’t avoid feeling horrified by what the Bernhard craftsmen can see and hear just outside their elite enclosure.
Much of the film’s ambiguity centers on Sorowitsch’s relationship with Herzog, the cop-turned-Nazi officer who more than anyone else can appreciate Sorowitsch’s craft. Herzog isn’t a proverbial “good Nazi”; he’s a despicable compromiser, casual anti-Semite and all-around pompous ass who toadies up to the Nazi elite and pretends to embrace their ludicrous ideology. But unlike most movie Nazis, Herzog is a completely plausible human being who believes he has good reasons for his actions, not a sociopath or a sadist. Even in their adversarial relationship, he sees Sorowitsch as a kindred spirit and almost a friend.
He isn’t entirely wrong: I think the point of Ruzowitzky’s film is that these two men in allied occupations, each primarily concerned with self-preservation, are mirror-images who face similar moral choices. If Herzog had been the Jew and Sorowitsch the gentile, they might have ended up on opposite sides of the same equation. (As he incrementally works on outwitting Herzog, you can almost hear Sorowitsch thinking: What would I do in his place?) Maybe the boundary that separates them is a matter of power or intelligence or simply human decency, but fortunately for all of us (it appears), the crook is finally able to see those moral choices for what they are, even when the cop can’t.
“The Counterfeiters” opens Feb. 22 in New York and Los Angeles, with wide national release to follow.
“Beaufort” (Israel; written and directed by Joseph Cedar) For the final weeks of Israel’s most recent occupation of Lebanon, a group of Israeli Defense Force soldiers are holed up in a medieval fort once used by European Crusaders, increasingly hemmed in by Hezbollah’s selection of crude roadside bombs and sophisticated Iranian rocketry. Memorably claustrophobic and fatalistic, Cedar’s film recalls the great war films of Renoir and Kubrick, although I’m not saying it’s quite in that class. “Beaufort” has been described in Israel both as left-wing propaganda and as a hymn to the nation’s brave soldiers (although I suppose that in the strange environment of domestic Israeli politics, those aren’t complete contradictions. In fact, neither Cedar nor his haunted and jittery characters ever express any opinion about the morality of Israel’s armed conflicts with its neighbors; like men in war anywhere and everywhere, they feel ill-served by the idiots in power and they hope to stay alive and go home. (Now playing in New York and San Francisco, with other engagements and many film-festival dates to follow.)
“Katyn” (Poland; directed by Andrzej Wajda) It’s unusual for a nominated film to make it all the way to Oscar night without a United States distributor, but that’s the case here. So besides academy voters and festival attendees who saw the international premiere in Berlin, no Americans have yet seen “Katyn.” Staging the infamous true story of a 1940 massacre of Polish officers in the Katyn forest by Soviet occupiers and the subsequent communist-era coverup — still understood as a defining tragedy of modern Polish history — ought to come naturally to Wajda, whose own father was among the murdered men. Still, reviews from both Poland and Berlin have been all over the map, with some critics acclaiming “Katyn” as the great Polish director’s finest work in decades and others finding it muddled and difficult to follow. You can expect it to be unsentimental, technically outstanding and firmly committed to a Polish point of view. (A little Wikipedia reading before you go is recommended.)
“Mongol” (Kazakhstan; directed by Sergei Bodrov) If you thought Genghis Khan was ready for a sympathetic, epic-scale biopic, you’d be — well, you’d be right, that’s what. At the helm of this massive Russian-Kazakh-Mongolian co-production, director Bodrov doesn’t exactly revolutionize the historical costume drama but does a bang-up job of covering the bases: A hero whose brutality is rooted in brutal circumstances, a semimystical treatment of pagan religion, an appealing love interest and numerous scenes of carnage and bloodshed, both large and small. Played as a boy by Odnyam Odsuren and then as a man by Japanese star Tadanobu Asano, the 12th century illiterate Mongol chieftain’s son named Temudgin who rose from most unlikely origins to conquer half of the known world (and who was notably generous to his underlings and conquered enemies alike) becomes a plausible human being. “Mongol” ends abruptly, just as the young khan has united the Mongol tribes and set out to conquer the northern fringe of China. Perhaps Bodrov and his cast are contemplating a sequel. (Opens in June.)
“12″ (Russia; directed by Nikita Mikhalkov) Here’s another one hardly anyone on these shores has seen. Sony Pictures Classics acquired U.S. distribution rights less than two weeks ago, but hasn’t announced its release plans. Director and co-writer Mikhalkov’s latest is a loose remake of the stage-and-screen American classic “12 Angry Men,” this time featuring a symbolic cross-section of the population — a racist cab driver, a Holocaust survivor, an alcoholic, etc. — who must judge a Chechen boy accused of murdering his Russian stepfather. By its very nature, “12″ is bound to be episodic, claustrophobic and talky — and it runs 153 minutes! For whatever it’s worth, reviews from the film’s Venice premiere were enthusiastic, with Variety’s Ronnie Scheib dubbing it “expansively, dramatically, magnificently Russian.”