Directed by: Stefan Ruzowitzky. I’ve been meaning to increase my intake of German films, and to keep up with modern world cinema in general, and hell—I’m always up for a good old true Holocaust story, right? And seriously, reading the basic plot, this is some pretty undeniable, compelling, true-life human drama. It’s about a notorious Jewish counterfeiter (based on a real guy) who is caught and jailed, but when the war starts, is put in the camps until he’s sectioned off to a “special” part of the camp where a top secret counterfeiting operation is happening, Operation Bernhard (a real operation). The Nazis were going to counterfeit English banknotes and flood their economy with them, to devalue their currency and generally fuck up their shit. The dilemma (not sure how much of this was really on the mind of the real guy, but it makes for a great film) is whether or not this criminal guy, only looking out for number one, is going to stick his neck out, risk the cushy special treatment and enter a regular camp and probably die, for some abstract cause like helping to fight the Nazis. It’s a classic Casablanca scenario: the individualistic antihero is just trying to save his own neck and these extreme circumstances are really putting him in an ethical jam (and it’s interesting to see how modern day Germany has embraced that framework that was so crucial to the American consciousness fighting Germany 70 years ago). When you really think about yourself in that situation, it’s a really compelling dramatic situation. If you cling to that phony baloney moral supremacy that most of us indulge in when we look at character behaviour in movies, it’s easy to say: “What’s the dilemma? You must sacrifice your own comfort in order to help end the war! That’s what IIIIIIII would do!” But, upon a millisecond’s reflection, it’s obvious that maybe you fucking wouldn’t do that, because you’re not a fucking perfect human subject, and really, you don’t know what you would fucking do in those circumstances. Added to that is the fact that this isn’t just a movie, this isn’t just a rhetorical situation. People were actually in situations very similar to this, and they were confronted with these dilemmas, and they didn’t know how everything would turn out in the end, and they didn’t know what choice to make at the time. And if that isn’t some great human drama right there, the drama of your conscience versus your life, yourself versus yourself, then I don’t know what is.
Besides just the general idea, the specific execution of those ideas in this particular movie was quite good. The script was (in German, so I’m going by the subtitles) totally respectable, it felt pretty naturalistic, and the dialogue was believable because the characters were all flawed people. The main drama focuses on Salomon (Sally) the master counterfeiter, Burger (the Communist agitator, who is still alive and actually consulted on the movie), and the head SS Officer Herzog. And these three guys are exactly what I love about non-Hollywood films. None of them are exactly likeable, they’re all just flawed, slightly off-putting, bizarre characters, or in other words: believable human beings. Going with the characters through this movie feels like we’re much closer than we are in most movies to feeling what that real experience likely felt like. Sally isn’t really sure who to trust, since Burger is kind of nuts and pretty outspoken, and Herzog is the bad guy but he’s really sticking his neck out for Sally, and he’s kind of funny and likeable, even though he’s also clearly nuts. That’s the thing: everybody is nuts, because the entire situation they’re in is nuts. Sally himself is pretty impenetrable—we never really get too deep into his head, and his feelings never emote from inside him, but always seem to sort of hang off of him like some scarecrow clothes. The other great thing about this movie that sets it apart from virtually every other Holocaust movie I’ve seen is that—pardon me if this sounds insensitive—it isn’t so goddamn depressing. I know that the Holocaust was depressing, but if that’s the thrust of your movie, I’ve fucking seen it before. This is the impression I got from watching about two thirds of The Grey Zone—that great Durstian refrain: “Everything is fucked/everybody sucks.” This movie respects your intelligence enough to take it as read that the whole thing is terrible (of COURSE it is), but it punctuates the entire film with this whimsical, French-sounding, intricate jazz harmonica score, eliciting the bookend scenes of Salomon in a tux at a lush beachside casino, sleeping with an elegant woman in a silk dress. Throughout the whole Holocaust, Sally is a million miles away, his materialistic world is what’s keeping him going—the promise of the whole nightmare being over so he can just return to the lap of luxury with his ill-gotten gains. Only, when he gets there, he can’t relate to his money in the same way ever again. It’s a character arc that is truly profound but the movie comes by it honestly, it never whacks you over the head with it. “THIS IS THE CHARACTER CHANGING, SEE????” Instead, it feels really slow and well-earned. All of the lead actors in this—the sullen Karl Markovics, the shifty-looking August Diehl (the smarmy officer from Inglourious Basterds), and the manic SS Officer Herzog played by Devid Striesow—are completely amazing. You should see this movie.