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Issue Date:  March 21, 2008

Complex stories

'The Counterfeiters' offers powerful drama; 'Definitely, Maybe' is a charming romance


-- CNS/Sony Pictures Classics

Karl Markovics and David Striesow in the movie "The Counterfeiters"

The Counterfeiters, the 2008 Oscar winner from Austria for best foreign film, offers a suspenseful Holocaust narrative with a special twist. Based on a true story, its central action takes place in a concentration camp where selected prisoners are enlisted by the Nazis to flood the English and American economies with bogus pounds and dollars. After rounding up all the counterfeiters and engravers they could find, the SS set up a special barracks in the notoriously brutal Sachsenhausen camp outside Berlin. Known as Operation Bernhard, this small, secret group created fake passports, ID cards and phony currency. In return, the workers were given special living conditions, regular food, beds with mattresses and even piped-in opera music.

Director Stefan Ruzowitzky combines a sharp script with a masterful evocation of the grim life in a prison camp. The entire production is filmed in such low light that claustrophobia seems to surround viewers like a shroud. But ultimately it is Karl Markovics’ masterful portrayal as the imprisoned Salomon “Sally” Sorowitsch, a Jewish master criminal, who gives the film its deep moral grounding.

A brief prologue in postwar Monte Carlo introduces Sally as a gaunt, shady figure ready to gamble away a suitcase worth of U.S. money. Flashbacks show him first in 1936 Berlin, living the high life of Europe’s greatest counterfeiter. Imprisoned before the war, he manages to survive by drawing sketches of the Nazi officers. Shipped to Mauthausen years later, he meets the man who first arrested him, the pseudo-benevolent Commandant Herzog (Devid Striesow), an avuncular SS officer who is creating a counterfeiting ring to serve the Nazi cause. Hunched over and hollow-eyed, the pragmatic Sally cooperates, although he tries to protect another prisoner who believes it is his moral obligation to sabotage the project.

The film’s power lies in its details. In the background we observe the horror of the regular prisoners’ brutalized existence, fighting over scraps of food and screaming under torture. The latter serves as a reminder of what’s at risk for Sally and his team should they choose to disobey their captors. “The Counterfeiters” presents an unsteady balance in which moral decisions are agonizingly difficult.

Inevitably, the film offers some echoes of Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List.” Herzog may keep his forgers alive and well but he is concerned only with improving his status in the SS as the end of the war nears, with escape money for himself. In a situation in which men have to struggle to save themselves, we confront the fundamental question: At what cost does one save one’s own life?

Definitely, Maybe is built around a basic father-daughter situation in which Will Hayes (Ryan Reynolds) tells a complex heart-to-heart story to his 11-year-old daughter, Maya (Abigail Breslin, of “Little Miss Sunshine” fame). He has just received a notice on the progress of his divorce, while she has come from a grammar school class in sex education. Maya calls the story a “mystery.” Her father disguises the names of the women he was involved with so she can’t be sure which one will turn out to be her mother.

Will had come to New York from Wisconsin in 1992, leaving his college sweetheart Emily (Elizabeth Banks) in order to work on Bill Clinton’s first campaign for president. Director/writer Adam Brooks is largely successful in capturing the atmosphere of the times and the goofy world of political campaigns, with idealistic volunteers running the stapling machine and maintaining the supply of toilet tissue. But the handsome, decent, somewhat naive hero makes a good friend in the office, Russell McCormack (Derek Luke), with whom he starts a political consulting firm after 1992. Almost inevitably, Will learns to smoke, drink and womanize in New York, and the photography that follows his career makes fine use of the film’s Manhattan backgrounds.

Though there are lots of good one-liners, there are so many twists to the plot that the movie feels longer than necessary. Mr. Reynolds is convincing as the bumbling hero, but the fun turns sour when the narrative rehearses some of the tired details of Clinton’s sex life. On the positive side, the director deserves credit for not letting Maya’s key role drown the proceedings in sentimentality.

The three women in Will’s life are strikingly different, and his relationships with them serve both to entertain and illuminate his own uncertainties. Emily is afraid he’ll never come back and eventually follows him to New York. Summer (Rachel Weisz), at first involved in an affair with her thesis adviser (the hilariously acerbic Kevin Kline), turns out to be an unscrupulous journalist. April (Isla Fisher), whom Will first meets when she is running the copying machine in the campaign office, is a free spirit who reads Jane Eyre every year and is hard to pin down. Maya follows the progress of her father’s entertaining encounters impatiently, but the movie mistakenly believes that having a little girl say “penis” and “vagina” is automatically a rich source of humor.

“Definitely, Maybe” opened on Valentine’s Day and possesses considerable charm. It may be impossible to make a classy romantic comedy in an age of moral permissiveness, but this is a film that has accurately observed some of the pitfalls of contemporary courtship and whose central characters are easy to like.

Perhaps the biggest surprise at the Academy Awards this year was the selection of Marion Cotillard as best actress for her performance as Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose. The sentimental favorite was Julie Christie in “Away from Her.” Ms. Cotillard’s role as “the little sparrow,” France’s singing phenomenon of the 1940s and ’50s, was to play Piaf’s life from a young teenager to an arthritic and drug-dependent woman near the end of her short life.

Ms. Cotillard wisely did not try to imitate Piaf so much as to create a character who conveys the entertainer’s tormented soul, combining both her tremendous exhilaration and devastating tragedy. Abandoned as a child in the slums of Paris, she grew up as a street singer only to be discovered by music hall directors and theater impresarios who helped her find fame.

For those who missed Ms. Cotillard’s performance when “La Vie en Rose” was playing in their neighborhood, the good news is that the DVD is already available in stores.

Kevin Doherty and Joseph Cunneen make up NCR’s regular movie team.

National Catholic Reporter, March 21, 2008

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