| 'Counterfeiters' pits survival vs. morality
This gritty human drama weighs survival against moral sacrifices in recounting the true story of the largest counterfeiting operation in history.
The central character is Salomon “Sally” Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics), a charming Russian scoundrel who lives the high life of cards, booze and women in 1936 Nazi-era Berlin. He puts his sketch-artist talents to forging false passports and counterfeit currency.
His luck runs out when he is arrested by police superintendent Friedrich Herzog (Devid Striesow) and sent to Mauthausen concentration camp in 1939. The skill of sketch drawing and painting portraits of the guards and officer’s families allows him to survive.
Sally is mysteriously transferred five years later to Sachsenhausen and reunited with Herzog, now a commandant. He is hand-picked to head Operation Bernhard, a secret plan to produce fake British pounds and American dollars. The Nazis want to destabilize the Allied economies with forged currency and also use the monies to finance the war effort.
Prisoners with artistic backgrounds or printing talents form Sally’s team of experts with backgrounds ranging from bank managers to political agitators. Among them is collotype printer specialist Adolf Burger (August Diehl) whose moral conscience leads him to sabotage the whole undertaking.
The screenplay is based on Burger’s memoir “The Devil’s Workshop.” Burger was imprisoned in 1942 for forging baptismal certificates to save Jews from deportation before being detained at Sachsenhausen.
A special section of the concentration camp referred to as “the golden cage” houses the workshop and living quarters for these 142 specially assigned prisoners. In addition to the kid-gloves treatment by the guards, they are given secondhand clothing, decent food, soft beds and a lavatory with running water. They even have piped-in classical music and a ping pong table to relieve stress.
One inmate remarks at the sight of a printing press, “It reminds you that you’re a human being.”
They attempt to tune out the suffering in the camp.
This gripping movie raises the question “What would you have done in a similar situation to survive?” The moral quandary of complicity with the Nazis bears a similarity to “The Grey Zone” (2001), in which squads of Jewish prisoners (Sonderkommando) worked the gas chambers and crematoria in Auschwitz, essentially doing the Nazis’ dirty work in helping to exterminate Jews.
Ironically, “The Counterfeiters” was written and directed by Vienna native Stefan Ruzowitzky, who acknowledges that he is a descendant of Nazis and Nazi sympathizers.
The movie looks and feels authentic with its exact re-creation of the camp and the prison garb. The movie earns high marks for cinematography and its soundtrack of classical tango music.
The interesting and engaging story gives another perspective on survival. It falls short of the dramatic effect of “The Pianist” (2002) and “Schindler’s List” (1993), which represent the gold standard in Holocaust films. There can never be enough Holocaust movies to remind us that evil exists in the world and to be on guard to never let it happen again.
Winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film representing the country of Austria. The dialogue is in German, Russian and Hebrew with English subtitles.
Keith Cohen, The Movie Guy