A fabulously done Austrian film about a skilled counterfeiter who gets put in the counterfeiting section of a concentration camp during World War II. Him and a few select others are chosen to help the Nazis attempt to counterfeit both the British pound and the American dollar. The rapport among the men in the counterfeiting section is what intrigued me. Some were so sickened by helping the Nazis they came close to self-destruction. Some saw this “duty” as easy work…a way out of hard labor and even out of being killed. The performances are all spot-on and each of the characters is unique and very well-constructed…and even with the dark, grizzly subject matter, we keep watching because we have to find out how all of these characters end up. Any Holocaust film is tough to watch…and hard to say you really “like.” I mean, can you “like” a film about death and atrocity? So, avoiding that, I will say this film is well-done and extremely powerful.

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If you can get past the annoying whistling (of the soldiers whistling a certain march, which is the movie’s theme music), this David Lean epic is one of film’s true masterpieces. William Holden stars as the tough, bitter Shears, who has been imprisoned in a POW camp for months when British colonel Alec Guinness and his troops are captured and sent to the camp. For me, this movie is one of the few large-scale epics I ever liked, mostly because it’s not too corny and sentimental. Don’t get me wrong…I like sentiment as much as the next gal but I prefer it in a romantic comedy or a melodrama. Corny romance and dialogue always seemed out of place, to me, in an epic. The one question I have, though, with the film is the ending. Not the finale—which ends with the train scene of all train scenes—but, rather just the second half of the film. After Holden’s character escapes from the camp, he finds himself enjoying his freedom. When he is propositioned by superiors to take them back to the camp so they can bomb a bridge the Japanese are building (with the help of Guinness’ soldiers), he reluctantly agrees. Reluctantly or not, I would never have agreed. We are told (through previous dialogue and through a montage of shots during the escape) that escaping the camp was an arduous ordeal and we already know that life inside the camp was hell. Nothing or no one would make me go back to hell once I got out, so I never really do get why Holden agrees. But, alas, if he didn’t there would not be a movie. And what a great movie it is! And that’s not just my opinion—ask the Academy. Winner of seven Oscars, including ones for Guinness and Lean.

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A comedy about a prisoner of war camp in Germany? With Nazis we can laugh at? Is this possible? Well, since nothing was impossible for director Billy Wilder, he (and co-writer Edwin Blum) took this stage play (by Donald Bevin and Edmund Trzcinski) and adapted it with comic brilliance for the screen. William Holden plays Sefton, one of the screen’s best love-to-hate-‘um/hate-to-love-‘um characters. Why does the audience feel this way about him? Well, Sefton is a curmudgeon and crook. He makes friends with the Nazis in order to get special perks. He has a foot locker filled with contra-band items that the other men would kill for. He basically is a guy who uses his time in the Army and in the prison to hone his schmoozing skills to get what he wants or needs. But, he’s funny. He’s like the class clown that you find yourself laughing with even though you think he’s distasteful and inappropriate. I like Holden and have seen most of his films. This is, in my opinion, the role Holden was born to play. He becomes Sefton…you forget that you’re watching an actor and you get caught up with the shady deals and craftiness. When the other men of Sefton’s barracks believe he is the “stooge” (or snitch) who is telling the Nazis about the escape plots, we feel sorry for him even though we are not quite sure whether we believe he’s innocent. He has proven he deals with the Nazis so maybe he is the snitch…or maybe not? Wilder’s filmmaking (along with Holden’s performance) seals this film as one of the best war films of its kind—or of any kind. Look for film director Otto Preminger as Colonel von Scherbach, who steals the few scenes he is in.

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