Movies

The Counterfeiters, Continental & Penelope

The Counterfeiters, Continental & Penelope featured image

by Marc Glassman.

The Counterfeiters (Die Falscher). Stefan Ruzowitzky, director and writer based on the memoir “The Devil’s Workshop,” by Adolf Burger. Starring: Karl Markovics (Salomon “Sally” Sorowitsch), August Diehl (Adolf Burger), David Striesow (Friedrich Herzog).

Continental—A Film without Guns (un film sans fusil). Stephane Lafleur, director and writer. Starring: Marie-Ginette Guay (abandoned wife), Gilbert Sicotte (gambler), Real Bosse (insurance salesman), Fanny Mallette (hotel receptionist)

Penelope. Mark Palansky, director; Leslie Caveny, script. Starring: Christina Ricci (Penelope), James McAvoy (Johnny/Max), Catherine O’ Hara (Jessica), Richard E. Grant (Franklin), Reese Witherspoon (Annie)

The Counterfeiters

The deserved winner of this year’s best foreign film Oscar, The Counterfeiters recounts a dramatic and true tale from the last months of the Second World War. The Nazis were nearly bankrupt after six years of war; they needed a miracle to win it—or even halt the Allies’ progressive march through Europe. A scheme was hatched, to use Jewish craftsmen to counterfeit the British pound. Concentration camp veterans, Jews doomed to suffer or die, were sent to a special section of one such camp and treated—quite suddenly—very well. Their skills as printers, artists and plate makers suddenly came in handy for their cash strapped oppressors.

Two of the leading lights of this counterfeiting ring were “Sally” Sorowitsch, a career criminal, and printmaker Adolf Burger. The two were genuine opposites: Sorowitsch had been a counterfeiter before the Nazis caught him while Burger was a Communist idealist. Yet there they were, working together, with a team made up of a disparate group of European Jews, ranging from former members of the bourgeoisie to bohemian artists. All had been culled from their camps by Friedrich Herzog, a former policeman who had risen in the Nazi ranks to a camp commandant. It was Herzog who had captured Sorowitsch before the war—and it was his idea to create the counterfeit money.

Success came quickly, as “Sally” cracked the elements that created the pound. The next task proved harder: to make phony American dollars. Sorowitsch could have done it with relative ease but Burger convinced the counterfeiters to pretend that they had a problem coming up with the proper “feel” for the dollars. It was a desperate plan—and one that Herzog tried to end through coercion. At one point, five Jews, including Burger, were given a week to come up with a solution, or they would die.

Since the film is based on Burger’s memoirs, something went right—and soon the War ended. Despite Burger’s main role in the camps, The Counterfeiters is structured around the tale of “Sally” Sorowitsch. A schemer and a crook, “Sally” rose to the occasion during his time in the camps, just as Schindler did. The Counterfeiters is a tense, character driven study—and a fine, and very different, Holocaust film.

Continental—A Film without Guns (un film sans fusil)

What happens when you make a film without a dramatic story? Not much. Continental is a surprisingly unpretentious movie that teases the viewer with narratives that don’t go very far. An older man gets off a bus and disappears. His wife gets angry—but can’t find him. A guy who owns a second-hand shop borrows money from his ex, ostensibly to fix his teeth; in reality, he uses it to feed his gambling addiction. A traveling salesman spends time in a hotel, chatting with the cute receptionist and listening to the couple in the other room having sex.

And, well, nothing much happens. No one shoots anyone. No one has illicit sex. People who disappear stay—disappeared.

Yet Stephane Lafleur has constructed an elegant film with a feeling of melancholia to it. This is life, he seems to be saying: Deal with it.

Continental won the best first feature award at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival. It’s nominated for 5 Genies. Deal with it.

Penelope

Penelope was a Gala screening at the Toronto International Film Festival—two years ago. The cast—Christina Ricci, James McAvoy, Catherine O’Hara, Richard E. Grant, Reese Witherspoon—garnered Penelope that Gala spot. But two years to be released tells you something else: something didn’t work out.

Penelope (Ricci) is the daughter of wealthy, eccentric parents Jessica (O’Hara) and Franklin (Grant). Sadly, the lass was born with the nose of a pig, brought on by an ancient family curse. No one can even look at her, so poor Penelope grows up, stuck in home.

Until, of course, a suitor (McAvoy) shows up to woo her. But is he all that’s he cracked up to be? Of course not! In the end, though, does he love Penelope? Need you ask?

Penelope is set up to be a fairy tale. There’s a whimsical narrative voice and Grant and O’Hara play up the oddities of Penelope’s parents. Unfortunately, director Palansky can’t maintain the proper fantastical tone. Would that Penelope had been made by Tim Burton!

But, hey, that’s another movie. The other problem? Penelope is played by Christina Ricci and, despite a snout for a nose, the young lady is, well, cute—maybe even hot. She’s not an ugly duckling at all.

But the film is.

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