THE COUNTERFEITERS (2007). Winner of this year's Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, this Austrian release adds a fascinating spin to Holocaust cinema by forcing its Jewish protagonists to ponder their own morality during this tragic period in world history. In other words, the black and white blueprints of movies like Schindler's List have been tossed out, replaced with one that bleeds gray. The picture's real-life basis rests in Operation Bernhard, a Nazi plot to print counterfeit American and British currency and flood those countries' marketplaces, in effect crippling their economies. To carry out this scheme, the German high command assigns ambitious officer Herzog (Devid Striesow) to oversee the operation from within a concentration camp, where the finest Jewish printers and counterfeiters have been assembled in privacy to produce the fake money. To insure their cooperation, Herzog provides these prisoners with street clothing, clean beds and decent food, thereby instilling in all of these Jews varying levels of guilt and shame (just outside their living quarters, they can hear the wails of the regular inmates, as well as the occasional gunfire signaling that someone's life has just ended). To ace counterfeiter Salomon Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics), it's all about survival, and he willingly obeys the Nazis as long as it keeps him alive. But to his fellow prisoner, a Communist named Adolf Burger (August Diehl), the principle matters more than anything, and he's willing to sacrifice his own life as well as those of the other inmates if it means wreaking havoc with the Germans' grand scheme. And therein lies the crux of the story: Should a person save himself at all costs, especially when his death would be nothing more than a symbolic gesture, or is there a point when a person has to take a stand no matter what? Writer-director Stefan Ruzowitsky has taken a question not uncommon in film (Casablanca, for starters) and magnified its meaning by smacking it down in the middle of the Holocaust, where all nobility and romanticism surrounding the dilemma has been stripped and all that's left is a hard look deep inside oneself. Ruzowitsky isn't foolish enough to impose any answers on impossible questions, and it's this honest if troubling stance that turns The Counterfeiters into the real deal.
DVD extras include audio commentary by Ruzowitsky, a making-of short, interviews with Ruzowitsky, Markovics and real-life forger and Holocaust survivor Adolf Burger (upon whose memoirs the film is based), and four deleted scenes.
DOOMSDAY (2008). British writer-director Neil Marshall made an attention-grabbing debut with the exciting 2002 werewolf flick Dog Soldiers, then followed it up with the excellent horror yarn The Descent (which placed on my 10 Best list for 2006). Naturally, Hollywood came calling, and, as is too often the case, an innovative foreign filmmaker ended up helming a rickety follow-up that largely got tossed away by the studio that tapped his services in the first place. Made for $30 million but hauling in only $10 million, Doomsday nevertheless isn't a total disappointment: Its inferiority status largely stems from the fact that we expected so much more from Marshall (his next movie is Drive, starring Hugh Jackman; we'll find out in 2009 how that one turns out). One's enjoyment of Doomsday might stem from how much one admires a blatant homage to the 1980s, as this post-apocalyptic action flick shamelessly borrows from Aliens, Escape from New York, and the Mad Max trilogy; you also have to admire any film that's set in 2035 yet finds the villains employing Fine Young Cannibals' "Good Thing" as the background music to their devilish doings. The setting is a Scotland whose population has been decimated by a deadly plague known as the Reaper Virus. A wall has been built around the entire country as a means to prevent the plague from spreading, but when it appears that a cure might exist somewhere inside the quarantined area – a danger zone now populated by murderous punks – it's up to tough-as-nails government agent Eden Sinclair (Rhona Mitra) and her team to try to locate it. Doomsday earned mixed reviews upon its original release, with the harshest comments coming from scribes who failed to notice that Marshall didn't exactly mean for us to take this seriously: A shot involving a severed head (normally not my cup of tea, but so sinfully clever that I had to rewind and watch it again) makes it clear that it's best to approach this with tongue firmly in cheek.
The DVD includes both the R-rated theatrical cut as well as an unrated version which runs four minutes longer. Extras include audio commentary (on the unrated version only) by Marshall and four cast members, a making-of featurette, and pieces on the visual effects and hardware (guns and vehicles) employed in the film.
THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS (1978). Quentin Tarantino lists this Italian action flick among his favorites, and he's been planning a remake for at least a decade now. Well, the ball is finally rolling: The Weinstein Company hopes to have Quentin's version in theaters next June (Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt are in talks to co-star). Meanwhile, the DVD outfit Severin Films has wisely elected to release the original in a nicely packaged three-disc DVD edition (a single disc version is also available). A blatant offshoot of The Dirty Dozen (the tagline even reads, "Whatever The Dirty Dozen Did, They Do It Dirtier!"), this World War II adventure yarn centers on five military prisoners who manage to escape when the truck transporting them is attacked by German aircraft. The quintet – leader Bo Svenson, tough Fred Williamson, amoral Peter Hooten, industrious Michael Pergolani and cowardly Jackie Basehart – plan to hoof it to Switzerland, but after being mistaken by the French Resistance as the team sent to carry out a dangerous mission, they figure completing the assignment might result in the Allied brass (repped by Ian Bannen) dropping all charges against them. Director Enzo G. Castellari refuses to let a relatively low budget interfere with his fun, as he and his five scripters make a film that's packed almost wall to wall with action. The cheese factor is high in this one, and allowances are made for T&A lovers as well as action fans (one improbable sequence finds the Bastards stumbling across German beauties skinny-dipping in a stream). This is also the only film I can recall in which the most abhorrent member of the group – a self-serving, racist jerk with Mob connections – ends up getting the girl! The Inglorious Bastards didn't even reach U.S. theaters until 1981, but since then, it's been re-released several times (mostly on video) under different monikers, including Deadly Mission, Counterfeit Commandos, Hell's Heroes and, for the blaxploitation crowd (and emphasizing Williamson's presence), G.I. Bro.
Extras in the three-disc DVD edition include a 75-minute making-of documentary, a conversation between Tarantino and Castellari, and a piece in which Castellari revisits the shooting locations. The third disc is a soundtrack CD containing the surviving original music.
VAMPYR (1932). The notion of cinema as dreamscape has rarely been realized as exquisitely as in Danish writer-director Carl Theodor Dreyer's moody vampire tale. Loosely based on Sheridan Le Fanu's story "Carmilla," the movie carries all the logic of a restless sleep filled with surreal thoughts, many of which tip into pure nightmare. Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg, the film's financier, adopted the pseudonym Julian West to portray the movie's leading character of Allan Gray, a young man who shows up in a European village rumored to be housing a vampire. The bloodsucker turns out to be an elderly woman named Marguerite Chopin (Henriette Gerard), and she's aided in her dastardly deeds by the local doctor (Jan Hieronimko). Also figuring into the proceedings are an estate owner (Maurice Schutz) and his two daughters (Sybille Schmitz and Rena Mandel), one of whom has already fallen under the spell of the vampiress. Vampyr marked Dreyer's first sound film, yet not surprisingly, it plays like a silent feature, with the emphasis on visuals rather than dialogue. And what visuals! There are images here that are staggering in their artistry: the shadow of a one-legged servant separating from its owner and taking off on its own; a ferryman wielding a scythe next to a fog-encrusted lake; the ultimate fate of the doctor, undone by (spirit-assisted) machinery even more imposing than the wheels and cogs encountered by Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times; and, most famously, the POV shots that find a prematurely boxed Gray witnessing the activities occurring just above the glass window on his coffin. For all its accomplishments, the movie can't match F.W. Murnau's 1922 Nosferatu (still the greatest of all vampire films), but its atmosphere of pervasive evil retains its power to grip discerning viewers.
Extras in the two-disc DVD set include audio commentary by film scholar Tony Rayns, a half-hour 1966 documentary about Dreyer, and a visual essay by Dreyer scholar Casper Tybjerg that includes censored scenes and archival stills. The set also includes a 214-page book containing both the film's screenplay and Le Fanu's "Carmilla."