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last update 24.Aug.07
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The Counterfeiters   4.5/5   Die Fälscher SHADOWS MUST SEE MUST-SEE
the counterfeiters Based on an autobiographical account, this is far more than another Holocaust drama; it's an examination of complex moral shadows that make us capable of cowardice and courage at the same time. It's also an impeccably well-made film.

As the Nazis come to power in Germany, the notorious forger Salomon (Markovics) is caught by a tenacious cop (Striesow). As a criminal and a Jew, Salomon has two marks against him, but his talent gets him assigned to a counterfeiting unit within a work camp, where skilled prisoners live in relative luxury while trying to replicate British pounds and American dollars to help further the Third Reich. Are they collaborating with the enemy, or can they quietly aid the resistance?

There's a terrific tension within the plot, as these men juggle survival instincts, their desire to subvert the Nazis and the enticing challenge to create the perfect fake banknote. These three elements exist to varying degrees in each prisoner, and the film's main triumph is that it manages to give so many characters such a rich inner life, from the more rebellious Burger (Diehl), on whose memoirs the film is based, to the tormented Loszek (Kudrjawizki) and the physically wracked and far too young Karloff (Urzendowsky). Even the Nazis have shades of complexity, from Striesow's smiley bravado to Brambach's racist brutality.

At the centre, Markovics gets the meatiest role as a man desperate to succeed on several conflicting levels, with more than his life depending on it. We know Salomon will survive the camp, since the film is bookended with a post-war scene, but the haunted look in his face in the prologue tells us we're not in for an easy journey. And indeed, by the end we're asking ourselves the same moral questions.

Writer-director Ruzowitzky assembles this with first-rate production design that's packed with telling details and subtly brilliant filmmaking touches. He balances tension with raw emotion--moments that are lively, funny, horrific and achingly sad. Critics might say he's sidestepping the true horrors of the Holocaust, but in telling this specific story, he catches a level of mental turmoil that says just as much. And it's something we really need to hear right now.

dir-scr Stefan Ruzowitzky
with Karl Markovics, August Diehl, Devid Striesow, Sebastian Urzendowsky, Lenn Kudrjawizki, August Zirner, Andreas Schmidt, Veit Stübner, Martin Brambach, Tilo Prückner, Marie Bäumer, Arndt Schwering-Sohnrey
markovics and schmidt
release Ger 22.Mar.07,
UK 12.Oct.07,
US 22.Feb.08
07/Germany Babelsberg 1h38

edinburgh film fest
15 themes, language, violence
20.Aug.07 eiff
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Day Watch   3.5/5   Dnevnoy Dozor
day watch Bekmambetov returns for Part 2 of novelist Lukyanenko's otherworldly trilogy. This carries on straight from NIGHT WATCH (2004), maintaining the epic scale and extremely strong characters, even if it's also somewhat self-indulgent.

Night Watch officer Anton (Khabensky) is struggling with the fact that his son Yegor (Martynov) chose to join Day Watch, forces of darkness standing against the light to maintain a thousand-year-old truce. And he's also annoyed that his new protégé Sveta (Poroshina) is more adept at his own job. The thing is: Sveta and Yegor are actually Great Others, and one clash between them will destroy the truce, unleashing all-out war between vampires, witches and the like. So when the Day Watch boss (Verzhbitsky) frames Anton for a crime, his boss (Menshov) must fight to maintain the balance.

Much of this was shot alongside the first film, so it maintains the same whizzy visual style. Made completely in Russia, it looks nothing like Western blockbusters, although there are echoes of inventive films like The Matrix and Underworld. Bekmambetov has loads of surprises up his sleeve, from the brilliant look of the Gloom, the parallel dimension where Others can fight, to the witty use of subtitles.

And the characters get just as much attention as the imagery. We feel Anton's pain as he is torn between the two people he loves. And this emotion gives the film a wonderfully moody, atmospheric tone that combines wit with creepiness. Especially when Anton swaps bodies with one of his colleagues (Tyunina) to go into hiding: "I feel like a tranny!" And it shifts even darker with the prospect of full-on ethnic cleansing if the truce is broken.

This is one episode of an epic tale, and as a middle chapter it's incomprehensible without seeing Part 1. It's also over-long and a bit too conclusive. Several scenes could've been shortened or deleted entirely, and a few effects sequences revel in their cleverness, grinding the story to a halt as we just sit and watch. Even so, it's great to see a big-scale movie that's completely independent of Hollywood meddling. So here's hoping that Dusk Watch is on its way.

dir Timur Bekmambetov
scr Sergei Lukyanenko, Timur Bekmambetov, Alexander Talal
with Konstantin Khabensky, Mariya Poroshina, Dima Martynov, Galina Tyunina, Vladimir Menshov, Viktor Verzhbitsky, Zhanna Friske, Valeri Zolotukhin, Aleksei Chadov, Nurzhuman Ikhtymbayev, Aleksei Maklakov, Igor Lifanov
Khabensky release Rus 1.Jan.06,
US 1.Jun.07,
UK 5.Oct.07
06/Russia Fox 2h12

edinburgh film fest
15 themes, strong violence, language
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The Witnesses   3.5/5   Les Témoins
the witnesses An intriguing 1980s-style drama about relationships and sexuality, this film feels somewhat out of date and more than a little indulgent. But it's skilfully well-made, with very strong acting from beginning to end.

It's the summer of 1984 in Paris, and Sarah and Mehdi (Beart and Bouajilla) have a new baby son. Their friend Adrien (Blanc) is a godfather, and he introduces them to his new friend Manu (Libereau), who he met in a gay cruising area. They're not lovers, but Adrien is hoping. Meanwhile, Manu discovers a connection to Mehdi, a vice cop who's raiding brothels on the street where Manu lives with his sister (Depardieu). Eventually, it's Mehdi and Manu who embark on an affair, which will be complicated by jealousy, misunderstandings and a mysterious new disease: Aids.

The most intriguing thing about this film is the way it plays with themes that were strong taboos 20 years ago, but aren't so much anymore: mixed-race relationships, age differences between lovers, the blur of metrosexuality, even hands-on fathers. Techine keeps the film nimble and lively, focussing on the humour while bringing out rich emotions as well as the subtle tensions between all of the characters. Using two decades of hindsight, the writing and direction are insinuating and inviting, building confidently to each explosion of emotion.

The acting is raw and naturalistic, as characters come together and try to stay apart. Happier days give way to battles and then to this unknown illness, all without ever dampening their life-loving outlook. Bouajilla and the ensemble cast deliver consistently complex performances that are increasingly identifiable, even as the plot gets increasingly twisted. As these characters' lives become inextricable entwined, they're forced to examine what they want from life, which includes a confrontation with their mortality.

As it progresses, the film becomes a little meandering and slow at times, testing our patience and wallowing in the characters' confusion. This is basically an extended observation on how sexual attitudes changed with the advent of Aids. As such, it's a gripping, sharp historical document, even if it's not always easy to care where it's going.

dir André Téchiné
scr André Téchiné, Laurent Guyot, Viviane Zingg
with Sami Bouajila, Emmanuelle Béart, Johan Libéreau, Michel Blanc, Julie Depardieu, Constance Dollé, Lorenzo Balducci, Alain Cauchi, Raphaëline Goupilleau, Jacques Nolot, Xavier Beauvois, Maďa Simon
libereau and bouajilla release Fr 7.Mar.07,
UK 19.Oct.07
07/France 1h52

edinburgh film fest
15 themes, language, sexuality, violence
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Yella   3.5/5
yella Tricky and insinuating, this German drama has the subtle subtext of a thriller as it follows a woman caught at a crossroads in her life. It's a little aloof and dry, but very well made.

Yella (Hoss) lives in East Germany and has landed an accounting job in the West so she can escape from her obsessive ex-husband Ben (Schönemann). Just getting out of her town is a huge effort, and then her new boss (Wittenborn) lets her down badly. Alone in a hotel, she meets Philipp (Striesow), who invites her to put her poker face to good use on an elaborate con. Yella proves herself better at this than Philipp thought, and they become partners in crime. But she can't escape Ben.

The film hinges on clashes between East and West, old and new, simple and sophisticated. As Yella navigates her ever-shifting surroundings, Hoss plays the role with a remarkable stillness. Her vulnerability is almost overpowering--constantly at the mercy of men around her, yet discovering inner resources that help her take control of her life. By contrast, Ben and Philipp are like two versions of the same man, right down to Schönemann and Striesow's eerily similar looks. Neither is terribly trustworthy, although Philipp at least compensates with intellect and compassion.

Writer-director Petzold films this with sundrenched lighting that makes everything look natural and bland--houses, offices, countryside. Even the extended tracking shots are understated. Combined with the still acting style, this generates a raw but surreal atmosphere. Sudden action wakes us up from the otherwise daydreamy tone--or is it a nightmare from which Yella will never escape? Eventually we begin to wonder if some of this exists only in Yella's mind as she struggles with the options in front of her.

The story gets darker and darker as it progresses, so we cling like Yella to whichever glimmer of hope presents itself. This is the most effective aspect of the film, because it's otherwise a little too muted to really grab hold of us. Petzold seems to be doing something much bigger, perhaps an allegory for German guilt, but it feels slightly out of reach. Kind of like happiness feels to Yella.

dir-scr Christian Petzold
with Nina Hoss, Devid Striesow, Hinnerk Schönemann, Christian Redl, Burghart Klaussner, Barbara Auer, Michael Wittenborn, Wanja Mues, Selin Petzold, Martin Brambach, Joachim Nimtz, Peter Benedict
schonemann and hoss
release Ger 13.Sep.07,
UK 21.Sep.07
07/Germany 1h29

Best actress:
edinburgh film fest
12 themes, language
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© 2007 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall