By Michael Guillén
The ghost of Florian von Donnersmarck is haunting Stefan Ruzowitzky, the Austrian director and screenwriter of this year's Oscar-nominateed [now Oscar-winning --ed.] The Counterfeiters, his compelling fictionalization of the men involved with WWII's Operation Bernhard at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Ruzowitzky's on a whirlwind city-to-city tour promoting his film. Whenever he wearies and asks, "Do I really have to go to Minneapolis?", his producers remind him that Florian von Donnersmarck went to Minneapolis and he won the Oscar. Whenever he complains about anything, his producers pipe up and say, "Florian von Donnersmarck [blah blah blah] and he won the Oscar!" Ruzowitzky laughs. You can't fight the junket. Resistance is futile.
First and foremost, congratulations on your Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language film.
This is your second time to be put on the rack, isn't it?
No, it's the first time. I was submitted for The Inheritors but I was not nominated. 1998 was a tough year, you know, with Life Is Beautiful; but I was in good company being not nominated with Run Lola Run. A lot of strong contenders were not nominated.
How are you feeling about this year's Oscars?
[Grinning ear to ear.] I'm very excited! You know, at festivals you have a small jury of six or seven people - you can be lucky or not lucky - and being on the festival circuit, it's more or less the same movies again and again. Once it's us winning; the next time it's The Band's Visit; then Persepolis. There were some movies who were at all these festivals and, depending on the people in those small juries, [we took turns winning]. Whereas with the Academy, that's really the most accomplished, finest filmmakers, actors, craftsmen, and hundreds of them, and if they think this is one of the best movies of the year, that does mean a lot, for me at least.
Clearly, Stefan, it is one of the best movies of the year. When I first reviewed it, however, my concern was that people would not want to see it because of its subject matter. I'm very happy to have been proven wrong. People have been enjoying watching The Counterfeiters. Why do you think that is? Why has this particular Holocaust film appealed to the public?
Especially in America and in the UK, where the movie did very well, audiences like when somebody succeeds in dealing with a sensitive difficult issue by making an accessible movie out of that. I tried to make a movie that was suspenseful and emotional, but at the same time brings across some political statements, if you will. This is something people in America like a lot. Back home in Germany and Austria, I was criticized a lot for the same reason. There, people think you're not supposed to deal with such sensitive issues within the means of entertainment filmmaking.
Let's talk a little bit about that quality of accessibility within the film. I watched The Counterfeiters roughly around the same time that I caught the documentary The Rape of Europa. I had come from a place of being thoroughly exhausted with Holocaust accounts, and what struck me about both projects was how they revitalized my interest, precisely because neither focused exclusively on the heinous extermination of the Jews and turned the focus more on the other forms of criminality practiced by the Nazis: robbery, looting, forgery and so forth. It isn't just that the Nazis were bad guys; they were really bad guys!
[Laughs.] If you're talking with Adolf Burger - the young Communist in the movie who's still alive and who's going to attend the awards ceremony; he's 91 years old and now he's traveling the world to promote the movie - for him this is the most important thing: to prove that the Nazis were criminals in every field possible. If you do research, so much is about robbing and stealing, especially from Jews. You would go to the Gestapo and say, "There are Jews in my house" because you wanted to have their apartment or their nice furniture. The Nazis would steal and rob and blackmail and rape and counterfeit everything possible; therefore, it's interesting to observe that those who go for law and order usually are those who are in favor of the Nazi ideology even though it has nothing to do with law and order at all.
Rather, it's strict adherence to enforcement of so-called law and order.
Yes! In Germany and in Austria nowadays, right-wing politicians will agree that the Holocaust was a terrible crime of incredible proportions; but many people will say, "This is sort of a collateral damage - a sort of side effect that should not have happened. But actually, the Nazi ideology is about highways and trains being on time, law and order and these things." I felt it's important to show that the Holocaust was the very essence of Nazi ideology and the highways are collateral. I can remember when I was a kid my Great Aunt saying - once when there was a political scandal in Austria - "There have been no morals in politics since 1945." I thought, "Well, this is not wrong." But I didn't know enough to argue with her. This is what, especially, old people still feel.
I've experienced that firsthand. I spent a month in Vienna once visiting an Austrian friend and I remember being on transit where old people glared at me with what I would call the evil eye. I couldn't figure out what was going on and why I was feeling all this derision and judgment. Only later did I realize that these old people were the selfsame Viennese who no doubt cheered Hitler when he entered the city. It was an odd, sad realization for me.
My grandparents, all of them as much as I know, were Nazi sympathizers. They never really got away from that. They had sacrificed a lot for this ideology, going to war, losing their property during the war, and then finding out they had been on the wrong side. Concerning anti-Semitism, I know for my grandparents it was always an issue if somebody was Jewish or not. They'd be watching TV and if, for example, the new director of the Vienna Opera came on, they'd be asking, "Is he Jewish? The name could be Jewish. The nose, the ears." They wouldn't say anything negative about Jews, but it was always an issue: is someone Jewish or not?
In any country, or any government, when a rhetoric has been so expertly inculcated, it's very difficult to "untrain" yourself. Speaking of Adolf Burger and his enlivened need to travel around and talk against the neo-Nazis, I know that, before being a director, you had to be a screenwriter and work on the screenplay. What was it like working with him on the screenplay?
Initially, I was terrified because this could have turned out to be a disaster: me writing in a script about his life or a part of his life. He could have said, "Well, I did not say this here. I was not going to the left but to the right." Stuff like that. But that was not the case. He was very tolerant because he knows from all his lectures that it's important to tell your story in a way that people will listen. You have to be truthful to the historical events but he was ready to accept a lot of adaptations.
What we did was sort of straighten up the chain of events and make one movie character out of three or four actual living persons, things like that. At the same time, he was very strict about certain things where he felt, "This is too far. This is wrong." Like this last meeting of "Sally" [Salomon Smolianoff, played by Karl Markovics] and the SS officer, this is fiction. There was a draft where Sally actually killed the SS officer in that scene and there Burger said, "No, you must not do that. For us, it was important that we would not be on the same level as the Nazis. We would try to bring them to trial, not slaughter them as they have slaughtered us." I was very happy to have an eyewitness by my side; it's much better than having a board of historians. It was a good experience.
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