No, it’s not for his famous flop of an American drag film, “All the Queen’s Men,” that he received an Oscar nomination. Forty-six-year-old Viennese director Stefan Ruzowitzky learned something facile but important in the industry: actors carry baggage. He had no idea that he cast not Matt LeBlanc as a World War Two interloper in women’s clothes trying to learn war secrets, but in fact Joey from “Friends.” How should Ruzowitzky know how popular the program was? In fact, his nomination is for Best Foreign Language Film, Austria’s selection “The Counterfeiters,” with less exposed but better performers who are known quantities, with serious drama outweighing the bad attempts at humor, and about a topic he knows well: the fact-based story of Jews who know how to create fake bills surviving, even living and eating fairly well, in concentration camps in return for their assistance in betraying the Allies in favor of the Nazis by creating money to undermine the enemies’ economies.
The lead character, Russian Jew Salomon “Sally” Sorowitsch (Karl Marcovics) is a professional criminal counterfeiter whose detective nemesis, Herzog (Devid Striesow) recruits him during the war, and who must work with the pseudo-idealist Burger (August Diehl), who, unlike the relatively amoral Sally, cooperates in spite of a guilty conscience, even holds a metaphorical moral mirror up to him.
Ruzowitzky is obsessed with the Holocaust as only a intellectually curious and socially engaged grandchild of such a horror can be. He has dealt with the topic indirectly in other films, including the horror film “Anatomy.” Most filmmakers who have addressed the topic are Jewish or American or both or German of a generation closer to the period, so Ruzowitzky’s take on the subject is welcome and, as it turns out, original. It’s a plus that he’s also an excellent, economical director whose style is compatible with his topic, whose actors look like real people, who cares not a tad about the cult of stardom. Let’s see how the Academy responds to such a rare combination.
indieWIRE: Do you live in Germany or Austria?
Stefan Ruzowitzky: I grew up in Germany, but I was born in Vienna. I “learned” to be German. Germans are quite different from Austrians, who tend to stay away from conflict too much… That’s not my kind of cookie. Austrians are not fighters. It makes me mad. Germans are much more straightforward.
iW: The subject of the camps and the Holocause has had a resurgence recently in both Germany and Austria, in films and in general.
SR: It is a generational thing. In the ’60s there was a generation of filmmakers like Wenders and Fassbinder, sons and daughters of people involved. Now we are the grandchildren. My Nazi grandparents are not here anymore. They would refuse to talk about it anyway, though back then I didn’t know much about it. Plus my audience is not the people who were involved. Often there is a misconception abroad. Germany is the only country where “The Counterfeiters” didn’t work. They don’t want to accept it, not because they feel guilty, but because they do not want to talk about the guilt of their grandparents. I wanted to invite a new generation to talk about these issues. It’s not those who committed the crimes anymore, so you have to find new stories.
iW: The imagery of the Holocaust is so exhausted, but the style of your film — shot close in, much of it handheld — is unusual. Perhaps it overcomes our immunity.
SR: That was the idea. I felt from the start it would be all wrong to have a slick Hollywood style, like beautiful lighting and lots of dolly movements. I wanted to have a documentary feel that sucks you in and forces you to always have Sally’s perspective. There is not one scene in the movie without him. He’s not really likable at the beginning, but then you start to understand him. “The Counterfeiters” is very much an American concept. When it premiered at the Berlin festival last year, it was praised by the American media, but condemned by German reviewers for its accessibility.
I like the word “accessible” more than “entertaining.” The idea of having a sensitive, difficult, heavy issue made accessible for a general audience without torturing the spectator is something I like. In Germany the idea is that you mustn’t do that with the Holocaust.
iW: Why doesn’t the film work in Germany? For the same reason that Jews are not supposed to air their laundry in a public that also includes non-Jews, though it is okay in a place like Israel?
SR: In Germany, people of my generation don’t know how to deal with this situation. It’s like in America, with blacks and Native Americans, you are aware there is a responsibility and there is guilt, but, as an individual, what am I supposed to do? Americans actually laugh during certain scenes. The German audience does not. They are so traumatized, not knowing how to deal with these issues. They don’t even know if it’s okay to use the term “Jew,” it might be construed as anti-Semitic.
iW: You chose story with such moral complexity. Can you tell me what your grandparents did during the war?
SR: On my father’s side, my grandfather tried to join the Nazi party for career reasons, but did it too late, when they no longer accepted new members. After the war, those who had applied for membership had the same restrictions as actual members. He had bad luck both before and afterward. On my mother’s side, they were all enthusiastic about this Nazi revolution, its new ideas for change. There are photographs of my grandfather on the beach, posing, ready to celebrate this idea of the Aryan body, with my grandmother. For people like them it was incredibly hard after the war to face the fact that they had fallen for a criminal regime. It was all wrong, and they had sacrificed their youth for that.
iW: I think of Sally as first and foremost a life survivor, and secondly a Holocaust survivor.
SR: That’s true, but he does have some principles. He is always saying he doesn’t have ideals or principles, but we find out he does have them, like don’t squeal.
The ending was tricky because one of the interesting issues was survivor’s guilt. I showed Sally, sitting on the beach thinking about whether he came too close to evil trying to survive. But we as a later generation are not allowed to accuse a Holocaust survivor for having survived, asking why he or she is still alive, if they compromised too much.
iW: The relationship between the Nazi Herzog and the Jew Sally is almost one of “doubles,” flip sides of the same coin.
SR: Yes. For me there are two antagonists: Burger, for the themes of morality and attitudes toward life, and the other Jewish counterfeiter, Herzog. Their personalities are similar. Both are gamblers who don’t have high moral standards. One is a head officer, the other an inmate. That was interesting concept to work with.
iW: Why was “All the Queen’s Men” such a disaster? You seem so good at drawing characters. But how can anyone assume anyone can buy into accepting men in drag onscreen when you can not assume any of the film’s characters buy into it?
SR: This was a misconception from the beginning. After “The Inheritors” had been successful, I, an Austrian director, got this offer from a German producer living in L.A. to make the film with a British screenwriter. Making an American movie with such a crew cannot work. One problem was that Matt Leblanc did a good job but I had not been aware how popular “Friends” was in the States — that I hadn’t cast Leblanc but, rather, I had cast Joey. Everybody who sees Joey expects a certain kind of humor. They were disappointed that he was behaving so strangely. That was the typical first attempt to make an American movie.