Yin and Yang at the Movies

Yesterday, I watched two very, very different movies, one Austrian (German language) and the other French.

The Austrian film, “The Counterfeiters” (“Die Falscher”), won an Oscar in 2008 for Best Foreign Language Film. Whether it should have won the Oscar, I cannot say, but it is a stimulating and well done film.

It is based on a true story. During WWII, the Germans took a number of Jews and criminals who had been arrested and gave them privileged treatment (a relative term to be sure, under the circumstances), turning them into a large counterfeiting operation. The primary goal was to print British pounds and American dollars in such quantity that they would over-flood and destablize their economies.

This did not occur, in part because the prisoners chosen to man the operation (most of whom had apparently been printers, engravers, photographers, and machine operators before their arrest) were having so many moral issues as to whether or not they should be assisting the Nazis in this task that success, although consistent, was delayed long enough that the war ended and the camp, Sachsenhausen in Germany, was liberated.

The moral dilemma was clear. No one wanted to help the Nazis. But they all knew that, were it not for their privileged position and needed skill set, they would probably be dead (or if not dead, treated much differently – they were witnesses to how normal prisoners were treated in the camp). How each of them dealt with this dilemma, and how they dealt with each other in light of it, provides the basis for the story.

There is a central character, well played by German actor Karl Markowitz. Salomon (Sally) Sorowitsch, who had been a “professional” counterfeiter (and a talented artist) and man about town in Berlin before the Nazi takeover. Arrested as a counterfeiter (not apparently directly as a Jew) and pressed into service, he was put in charge of the portion of the operation dealing with quality control, and he had previously had experience printing fake English and American money (a very difficult task for a number of reasons), as well as passports, exit visas and so forth. He survives the war, again to become a man about town (this time, at the Monte Carlo casino), and apparently again a counterfeiter (he doesn’t worry about loosing at the roulette table, because “we can always make more”).

The second film, a recent French release called Fais-moi Plaisir (English title: Please Please Me) is as frothy as The Counterfeiters is serious. Written by, directed by and starring Emmanuel Mouret (some consider him France’s answer to Woody Allen), it is the story of a hapless youngish man with a beautiful girl friend who, on a lark that he immediately regrets, becomes temporarily involved with another young woman, who turns out to be (much to Mouret’s surprise) the daughter of the French president.

There are no normal characters in this film, and the humor is sophomoric at best (is ‘freshmonic’ a word?), with pratfalls and faux pas of the type that made Jerry Lewis (a French icon, as I understand it) famous, and which do not rely on words (I know my French: mots) and could just as easily been lifted directly from a silent movie.

Worth watching? No. Harmful or offensive? Not at all. Anything funny in it? A couple of things, which I won’t give away. Does everything turn out for the better? Perhaps; at least it does not end in tragedy.

Yin and yang.

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