Stefan Ruzowitzky, The Counterfeiters
It is the natural desire of critics to put films and their directors into neat categorizations, and yet there are some directors, such as Stefan Ruzowitzky, whose work simply cannot be summed up in a simple all-encompassing description. Born in Vienna, Austria, on Christmas Day 1961, Ruzowitzky stayed in his home city to study film, theater and history before pursuing a career in directing television shows, commercials, and pop promos for bands such as The Scorpions and Nsync. In 1996 he began an amazingly diverse career in features with the hip urban slice of life Tempo. He followed up with The Inheritors (1997), an acclaimed family drama about Austrian farmers in the 1930s, which was Austria’s selection for the Academy Awards. From restrained pastoral he segued into populist horror, helming two highly successful German medical gorefests Anatomie (2000) and Anatomie 2 (2003). In between, he directed All the Queen’s Men (2001), a WW2 dramedy about crossdressing spies starring Matt LeBlanc and Eddie Izzard.
Ruzowitzky returns to the subject of World War II with The Counterfeiters, though this time there are few laughs to be had. The movie, based on a remarkable true story, revolves around master counterfeiter Salomon “Sally” Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics) whose decadent, immoral life in Berlin is shattered when the Nazis begin rounding up Jews and sending them off to concentration camps. In order to survive, he paints the wardens’ portraits, and then agrees to lead “Operation Bernhardt,” the Nazi’s plot to flood the market with fake American dollars. The Counterfeiters is not a Holocaust movie, but rather an immensely compelling real-life adventure set against the backdrop of WW2 and concentration camps. It does not, however, sidestep the inherent issues of the Holocaust, as the film’s central problem — personal survival vs collective survival — is inextricably linked to the horror of what happened in the camps. Grippingly written and directed by Ruzowitsky and featuring a standout performance by Markovics, The Counterfeiters is one of the five films nominated for the Best Foreign Language Feature at the Academy Awards this Sunday.
Filmmaker spoke to Ruzowitzky about the movie’s moral complexities, his Nazi grandparents and rescuing his school play aged 10.
Filmmaker: How did you first find out about this story?
Ruzowitzky: It’s not well known in Austria or Germany, one must say. It was quite a coincidence because there were two producers who were approaching me with that same story more or less at the same time, so I knew this was destiny. What intrigued me right away was actually the central character of Sally. To have a counterfeiter in the concentration camp was the pitch that was striking me. With this counterfeiting, would he be able to manipulate reality also in the camps? Would he be able to betray people there? Betray himself? In such a situation, not knowing anything about the details, but this I knew right away that’s interesting.
Filmmaker: How much research did you do into the story?
Ruzowitzky: A lot. There is the book by Adolf Burger, and he is still alive so I talked with him. There were also other inmates of these special units who had written memoirs, and I also read a lot of other autobiographies of former inmates. I also did additional research, knowing that this is such a sensitive issue and that there are so many possibilities to come across with a wrong message, even if you have the best of intentions. The last line, when Sorowitsch is saying, “We’re going to make some new money again,” was very important for me because at a certain point I found out that it would be an awful message to bring across saying those Jews who survived the gas chambers became better people at least. This would be a completely wrong thing, so you have to take care and do a lot of research and think about it properly and talk with a lot of people.
Filmmaker: Did you have to change aspects of the story in order to turn it into a movie?
Ruzowitzky: I did to a certain extent. But all these details — like the pingpong table and the operatta music played to them all day long and these musical dance evenings that they had organised — are too good to be invented. What I did was straighten the chain of events, and make one character out of three or four real life characters.
Filmmaker: And is the character of Sally Sorowitsch a real life person?
Ruzowitzky: Yes. Sally is, and he’s also very close to the role model. His name was Sally Smolianoff, and all this is true with him surviving Mauthausen, the first concentration camp, because he was painting portraits of the wardens. Burger had told me that Sally got arrested because, as we show in the picture, he was about to leave the country and then he met a beautiful woman and stayed for one night too long. So I used all that. He was quite an interesting character so there was a lot of material to work with. It was all rumors, which was perfect for a filmmaker, because you can play around with it. There was the rumor that he showed up in Monte Carlo sometime after the war and lost a lot of money there — that’s just great material to work with and interpret it.
Filmmaker: He’s a morally complicated character, which I presume was ideal in telling such a morally complex story.
Ruzowitzky: Yes, and the interesting thing is this is something new in many respects: this perspective, such a character. He’s an anti-hero, because usually Jewish victims have to be good people and likeable from the start, and here you have a crook who is not really likeable in the beginning, but therefore people get to like him even more because they’re taking the journey with him. Also, it’s a different perspective and this is something I really found out doing research: all these autobiographies from concentration camp inmates were all written by people like us, people with an intellectual, academic background and bourgeois, but Sally is a jailbird. He knows how to get along in a prison, which is a completely different perspective. For people like Bruno Bettelheim, who was a student of philosophy, coming to such a situation you don’t get along with it at all. I’m not saying that a concentration camp is just another prison — that would be a misunderstanding — but in many ways it works like one, and I think he got the system and knew how to deal with it much more than a philosophy student.
Filmmaker: He’s almost like a film noir character in a Holocaust movie. Except that you that you seem to be completely rewriting the rules of what a Holocaust movie is supposed to be.
Ruzowitzky: In a way, I feel it’s not a Holocaust movie, it’s a movie that’s set in a concentration camp but the situation is so special, you know? That’s also a problem of the movie, because people think, “Oh, it’s a Holocaust movie. Not again…”, because that means you have everybody dying because that was the essence of concentration camps. My movie is, of course, not light-hearted and entertaining but it’s not what you would expect from a Holocaust movie.
Filmmaker: Were there any films that influenced you in regard to the tone or perspective of this movie?
Ruzowitzky: I definitely wanted to have this documentary approach and felt it would be completely wrong to have it too slick and beautiful and clean and nicely lit and [with] dolly movements and that kind of stuff. I felt if I had a chance to make the audience come close to what my protagonists went through you have to force them always to be with my hero, always look over his shoulder, always be there, never know what’s going to happen next, never have an objective view.
Filmmaker: Your career has gone through interesting progressions. Based on your first film, The Inheritors, one would not expect that you would make Anatomie or Anatomie 2.
Ruzowitzky: This is one of the greatest things about my job, that I can do so many different things. Last summer I made a children’s movie [Hexe Lilli] and one of the reasons for doing that was that I’ve got two [young] children so I felt my children are an important part of my life. But so are my Nazi grandparents, and so both [films] make sense. I always see myself mainly as a storyteller, somebody who tries to communicate with an audience and deciding to have a certain visual aesthetics and dramatic concept to me is part of storytelling: Who is my audience going to be? How am I going to reach them? What are the best strategies to bring my story across?
Filmmaker: How much did having Nazi grandparents motivate your perspective on this story and your desire to tell it?
Ruzowitzky: Living in Austria, if you’re not completely blocked [off], you are aware that this is part of your history — your family history, your country’s history — because the remains are everywhere. My grandparents weren’t some huge war criminals, they were just average people fascinated by the Nazi’s ideas. I can remember my grandparents saying things whereas nowadays it would be incredible what they were saying, so this is just dealing with your common past, in a way.
Filmmaker: The Counterfeiters was Austria’s official selection for the Academy Awards and is now one of the five nominees for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. How has life been for you as a result?
Ruzowitzky: It’s great and I really would not have expected that the reaction in Austria would be that enthusiastic, because the Austrians do not really love their own movies. Like when the film was in competition at Berlin, which is an ‘A’ festival (something very important for a filmmaker), that didn’t mean anything, but if it would win the Academy Awards you would be the king of the world. I’m a national hero, I’ve got my 15 minutes right now in Austria with stewards on the plane asking me for autographs and recognizing me and things like that.
Filmmaker: Now that you are an Oscar-nominated director and will have more creative license, what kind of projects would you like to be doing?
Ruzowitzky: It can only be about the next interesting project, and not making an American movie at all costs. If you do a bad American movie, it’s going to hurt your career here and back home. For me the ideal thing would be to have the possibility to make projects here that are bigger budgeted and where you have the possibility to work with all these great American actors and other artists, and then again do something smaller back home, which is a privilege for us Europeans. It’s like what Stephen Frears or Neil Jordan are doing; that would be perfect for me. It’s not about “Hollywood here I come!” and looking for a villa in Beverly Hills. I have two children who are going to school and you can’t do adventures like that [where you] just go to Hollywood and see what’s going to happen. This you can do when you’re 25 and have nobody you’re responsible for.
Filmmaker: Which film do you wish you had directed?
Ruzowitzky: Once Upon A Time in the West. That’s one of my favorite movies because I always see myself as craftsman and this is a movie that breaks so many rules of the craft but still works. The beginning of Once Upon A Time in the West, for 10 minutes nothing happens and its suspenseful. It’s really cool.
Filmmaker: If you could hand out an Oscar to someone who’s never won, who would you give it to?
Ruzowitzky: Hitchcock, I don’t think he ever won. The book of Francois Truffaut interviewing Hitchcock was probably the most important for me concerning learning how to make films. It still influences me a lot, especially this thing of having themes, where he says, “If I’m shooting in Switzerland, then it’s about mountains and chocolate and somebody’s drowned in hot chocolate and somebody’s fallen off the mountain,” and things like that which I’m trying to do as well.
Filmmaker: Finally, what was the first film that made you want to be a director?
Ruzowitzky: The story about me wanting to become a filmmaker is that when I was in primary school there was always a stage play performed by the fourth grade, the kids who were about to leave the school. I saw it when my brother did it: the mothers were doing the costumes and it was all wonderful. So for the whole of primary school I was waiting to be in the fourth grade and be part of such a performance, and when I finally got there our teacher came and said, “Kids, this year there’s no performance.” [laughs] I said, “This can’t be,” and so I organized the whole thing by myself. I was casting my friends, and doing just everything. Obviously it was pretty good because we did a lot of performances for the whole school and the parents, so this is when I decided, “This is what I want to do as a profession.”
Filmmaker: So you directed the play as well as organizing it?
Ruzowitzky: Yes, and I was male lead! [laughs] It was good fun.