Hannes Richter

Austria Honored with Hollywood Oscar

Hannes Richter

ruzowitzky01.jpgThe small gold-plated statuette, a mere 12 inches in height, is fiercely coveted, and this year Austria took home the prize. After three-quarters of a century of recognizing excellence in cinema, Hollywood’s Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences bestowed the Oscar upon Austria and its entry film, the Austrian/German production, The Counterfeiters, (Die Fälscher) during the 80th Academy Awards. Unlike the other Oscars, the Best Foreign Language Film Award is not presented to a specific individual but is considered an award for the entire country. It is of special significance, for from a record number of 95 countries invited to submit their best film, Austria was selected for the honor.

Austrian-Hollywood Connection There has been a longstanding tradition of Austrians in Hollywood, including actors Maximilian Schell (Judgement at Nuremberg) or Arnold Schwarzenegger (The Terminator), or executive producers such as Eric Pleskow, who financed movies like Apocalypse Now. But in his acceptance speech, Austrian director Stefan Ruzowitzy found a broader significance by drawing a parallel to his film’s historic subject of the National Socialist era when he said: “There have been some great Austrian filmmakers working here - people like Billy Wilder, Fred Zinnemann, Otto Preminger. Most of them had to leave my country because of the Nazis, so it sort of makes sense that the first Austrian movie to win an Oscar is about NS crimes.” His comments echo the country’s attempts at reconciliation with the past and the Holocaust era.

An Historical Account The Counterfeiters is not the usual WW II film with perpetrators and victims, but is based upon a largely unknown chapter of German/Austrian history called ‘Project Bernhard,’ which deals with one of the biggest counterfeiting schemes in history. Between 1942 and 1945, a group of some 140 Jewish prisoners from the concentration camp at Sachsenhausen were recruited and forced by the Nazis to forge British pound notes, American dollars, stamps and documents. By flooding its economy with forged banknotes, the SS Counterintelligence Agency hoped to destabilize England’s economy, help finance the war and keep Hitler in power.

Book as Basis for Film Script The film is based on a true story written by one of the surviving Jewish prisoners - ninety year-old Adolf Burger. He captured thoughts and memories of those years in his book, The Devil’s Workshop (Des Teufels Werkstatt, 2007). Austrian film director Ruzowitzky read it, was fascinated and used the framework of the story to focus on the underlying theme of the disparity between survival and ethical principles. Two expert counterfeiters of the group - Salomon Sorowitsch, the criminal, and Adolf Burger, the political activist - embody these two perspectives. One of the core conflicts of the film is the confrontation of these two figures.

For the counterfeiters, the concentration camp is somewhat of a “golden cage.” In a section separated from the rest, they enjoy special privileges: food, clean clothing, soft mattresses and a shower once a week. At the same time, they are also harassed and permanently threatened with death should they fail in producing perfect, counterfeited money. In essence, the game is a double-edged sword: On the one hand, because they collaborate with the Nazis, they survive the squalor of the concentration camp and their lives are spared. On the other hand, by succeeding in producing fake money, they are helping to support the NS regime and to continue the war. For Sorowitsch, the realist, there is nothing more important than survival, whereas Burger struggles with a sense of guilt and conscience and considers resisting the Nazis by sabotaging the printing machines. The dilemma is apparent, but the question of who is right or wrong is left up to the audience.

What the Oscar Means for Austria In an interview Ruzowitzky speaks of the great loss of talent that occurred with emigration due to the war. “That was a gigantic blood letting for Austrian culture. There was simply a huge, black hole after the war, and only in the past few years has Austrian film shown signs of recovering.” Many in the field hope that the Oscar will encourage the government to offer more support to the film industry in a country more attuned to classical music, theater and opera.

Adolf Burger was born 1917 in what is today Slovakia and currently lives in Prague. Whereas his wife and parents died in the concentration camp, he survived because of his skills as an expert printer and typesetter and his selection by the NS to work for ‘Project Bernhard.’ Since 1988, he has been lecturing to the younger generation about his experiences during the Shoa, “telling them what happened, so that it can be prevented from ever happening again.” Recalling his relationship to Sorowitz, he remembered how conflicted he felt concerning their different approach to circumstances at the time; however, all those involved in ‘Project Bernhard’ agreed on one thing: “We all wanted to survive.” What separated them was simply the question: “At what price?”