Sunday, March 09, 2008

Music for Counterfeiters

The Counterfeiters: Music from the Motion Picture
Milan Records

This year’s Oscar nominated original scores were a particularly dreary, unremarkable lot. Perhaps the most effect movie music of the year was actually ineligible, as a good portion was not originally composed for the film. While Marius Ruhland did compose some original themes and cues, the soundtrack of The Counterfeiters, winner of the Academy Award for best foreign language film, is dominated by the haunting tangos of Hugo Diaz.

Director Stefan Ruzowitzky happened to have the music of the Argentinean harmonica player recommended to him while he was making the film and thought it was a perfect fit for the lead character, Salomon Sorowitch, based on the real-life Salomon Smolianoff. It seemed particularly fitting because Smolianoff actually relocated to Argentina sometime after his liberation from the camp.

Sorowitch is a survivor and a man of the underworld. As a result, he never wears his emotions on his sleeve. As played by Karl Markovics, Sorowitch brings to mind a lightweight boxer, maintaining a shrewdly cold exterior, while projected to sense of potential danger. However, despite his criminal success, he remains Jewish, subject to all the same German prejudices and hatreds every Jew in straight society must endure. The tango themes associated with his character tap into that sense of sorrow that a character like Sorowich refuses to outwardly express. The music of Diaz actually helps Markovics establish the interior turmoil of the steely counterfeiter. They also contribute to the appropriately modest emotional pay-off granted through the film’s framing sequences. In short, Diaz’s music makes the film better.

Diaz in fact, should be better known in America. He was a master of many forms of Argentinean music, not simply the tango, and was a friend jazz harmonica players like Toots Thielemans and Larry Adler. Each of his selected performances has an elegantly stark beauty, with “Man a Mano” and “Silencio” being perfect introductory and concluding themes, respectively.

Of Ruhland’s themes, most are of the emotional helper variety, perfectly effective in the film, but not so interesting independently. Probably the foreboding “Burger’s Secret” holds up on its own the most successfully, but it is hardly required listening.

The balance of the selections consists of the light operetta records so beloved by the National Socialists, which they would actually play for the counterfeiters as a form of positive reinforcement. Whatever their relative merits, knowing the privileged position some of these artists held under the regime leaves one cold to hear them now. For instance, Belgian tenor Marcel Wittrisch, here represented with “Nur fur Natur” and “Wei Mein Ahnl Zwanzig Jahr,” also recorded something called “God Bless Our Fuhrer.” However, within the context of the film on-screen, the chosen selections work effectively.

Counterfeiters is a great film, highly recommended. After seeing it, the tangos of Diaz probably sound even better, whereas the opposite is true for the operetta. Even apart from post-viewing reactions, the soundtrack CD is a mixed bag stylistically. However, Diaz’s tangos are a highlight that will hopefully reach a wider audience now.