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Vintage Violence

Bad old days — the Holocaust and Vietnam war protests — revisited with fresh eyes.

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What a punim. Salomon "Sally" Sorowitsch bears little resemblance to the innocent, law-abiding victim in most Holocaust movies. Indeed, with his prominent jaw, compact but wiry frame, and furtive eyes, Sally looks more like someone to be picked out of a police lineup, a man to be feared rather than pitied.

Sure enough, it's the Berlin police who catch him first, not the Nazi authorities. In the opening scenes of The Counterfeiters, Sally (Austrian TV star Karl Markovics) and his underworld associates in 1936 are busy making their usual fistfuls of Deutschmarks running the rackets, and so when Inspector Herzog (Devid Striesow) arrests him and he's sent to the notorious Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria, at first it doesn't dawn on Sorowitsch what kind of a jam he's really in. As king of the counterfeiters, he knows there are ways out of the Third Reich for slick operators like himself, so why leave now when there's money to be made? He's been to prison before, no big deal.

But Mauthausen is no ordinary prison. Sorowitsch sees fellow inmates being killed right and left by brutal SS guards, and quickly hatches a scheme. He'll use his artistic talent to paint kitschy heroic portraits of the officers as his ticket out of the death machinery. As a "habitual criminal" as well as a Jew, Sorowitsch has two big strikes against him, but his criminal expertise is an even more significant blow in his favor. Seems the Nazis have a plan to counterfeit British pounds and US dollars, then flood the world markets with the fake bank notes in order to destabilize those economies.

Toward that end, notorious craftsman Sorowitsch is shipped to KZ Sachsenhausen near Berlin, where he joins a handpicked group of expert engravers, printers, and forgers, all of them Jews, housed in their own special unit apart from the rest of the prisoners. While the other poor wretches are being tormented by thuggish guards such as Sally's nemesis Hauptscharführer Holst (Martin Brambach), the Jewish specialists in "Operation Bernhard" live and work in relative luxury, with classical music, clean sheets, cabaret shows, and even a ping-pong table. Of course, as soon as their job is finished it's off to the gas chamber with them, so their strategy is to very carefully delay the work as long as possible. There's no Oskar Schindler anywhere in sight, only the familiar face of Sally's old adversary Herzog, who these days happens to be the camp commandant. So there is hope. "Herzog's a crook," says Sally, "I can deal with him."

And he does. Not content with the pathetic aspect of this chronicle of the camps, Viennese writer-director Stefan Ruzowitzky has set himself the unenviable task of trying something new in a Holocaust film. That genre, so full of amazing true stories like Sorowitsch's (it was inspired by the case of Russian Jewish forger Salomon Smolianoff), has by sheer repetition been reduced to a sort of cultural skirmish line, a battle of absolutes in which one side believes that every single Holocaust tale is worth telling — and worth the Foreign Language Academy Award, in this case — simply because it happened, and the other side is sick of hearing about the subject.

A third point of view exists: Take each individual story at face value. The account of a German Jew who comes out of the death camps rich and immediately goes to Monte Carlo for some high-stakes gambling is newsworthy, to say the least. Sally's ironic misadventures become all the more provocative alongside the class strife inside the Operation Bernhard compound, where the respectable Jewish bankers bristle at being forced to collaborate with a Jewish criminal. Later, Sally decides to opt out of a resistance plot — there's nothing in it for him. The chief moral dilemma for them is whether to help the Nazis win the war, or to die a horrible death immediately. For a career hood and streetfighter like Sally, that's a no-brainer.

The Counterfeiters emerges as a compact crook's-eye view of the Hitler era worthy of a Brecht or a Fassbinder, but without the didacticism. Sally Sorowitsch is the little gangster who outsmarts the big gangsters. What could be more gratifying than that?

Bad Days

Chicago 10 wins the race as the first major movie treatment this year of the epochal events surrounding the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. At least writer-director Brett Morgen and competitor Steven Spielberg (whose Aaron Sorkin-penned docudrama, now in pre-production, reportedly stars Philip Seymour Hoffman, Will Smith, and Sacha Baron Cohen) hope the "epochal" tag proves true. Convincing 2008 audiences that a rumble in the streets forty years ago over an unpopular war was a landmark in American history may require more magic than either filmmaker can muster.

So far, Morgen's film has the inside track with its combination of vintage newsreels and animated sequences outlining the efforts of activists and ordinary kids to raise a stink over the war. At that point, more than 19,000 Americans had been killed and the draft was gobbling up more young men every month. President Lyndon Johnson had already renounced a second term because of the war and the Democrats were on the defensive. Up stepped an unlikely coalition of radicals, hippies, and students. Chicago police and National Guardsmen, led by Mayor Richard J. Daley, greeted them with nightsticks upside the head, and after the smoke cleared, eight "conspirators" were tried in federal court on charges of incitement to riot. Everybody knew it was really the cops who rioted.

The period footage is exciting, the closest the US has come to European/Latin American-style insurrection in the streets. For the trial scenes, Morgen uses animation and the voices of Hank Azaria (Abbie Hoffman and Allen Ginsberg), the late Roy Scheider (Judge Julius Hoffman), Liev Schreiber (William Kunstler), Jeffrey Wright (Bobby Seale), and other actors to portray one of the most fascinatingly bungled show trials in US history. Chicago 10 is definitely worth a look for skeptics young and old, but first, acquaint yourself with Haskell Wexler's Medium Cool and Sam Green and Bill Siegel's The Weather Underground, just for some perspective. Believe it or not, things were actually worse in those good old days.

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