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The Counterfeiters (2007,Austria)

12/06/2011

Director: Stefan Ruzowitsky       Starring: Karl Markovics, August Diehl, Devid Streisow

The Holocaust is a subject that will always prove difficult for film makers, not for want of tragedy but because the sheer scale of the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis in their various concentration camps is difficult to convey within the confines of a film. Therefore most film makers narrow the focus to individuals or small groups of individuals and try and tell the story from a much tighter perspective. It’s a risky business that requires a lot of research and insight and maybe even some kind of personal connection to the stories to make them really work. If you’re not careful you can end up with facile rubbish like The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas rather than a Life Is Beautiful or Schindler’s List. This approach, that of focusing on a small group of the victims of the Holocaust, is the one chosen by writer/director Stefan Ruzowitsky for The Counterfeiters and I must say it is employed to great effect.

Based on real events it follows Salomon “Sally” Sorowitsch (Markovics), a Jew of Russian descent living in Berlin and making something of a name for himself as a master forger of official documents and currency. A born survivor, when he is arrested for his crimes and shipped off to a death camp he uses his considerable artistic talents to gain favour with his captors and after a few years is eventually transferred to a special unit in Sachsenhausen camp, under the command of Friedrich Herzog (Striesow), the Berlin policeman who originally arrested him. He is put to work supervising Operation Bernhard – a large scale forgery racket intended to destroy the economies of Britain and America by flooding their economies with vast quantities of forged currency and thus weakening their respective war efforts. In return for their work the men working on Bernhard get privileges far beyond the treatment of their fellow Jews in the camp and they find themselves torn between working for their own survival by helping the Nazi war machine and their collective conscience about what they are doing.

Much of the film hangs on Markovics, the focus being predominantly on Sally and his unique set of skills. Thankfully he has the acting prowess to carry it off and puts in an outstanding performance as the apparently self serving forger. As the story unfolds it becomes clear that Sally has had to fight for survival all his life, that he has lost people that were important to him and that he will do whatever it takes to live just one day longer. Self centred on the surface, this is the way he faces the world but in truth he is caring and kind, especially to the much younger Kolya who has also been sent to work in Bernhard. Markovics measured, introverted performance is glorious, expressing the hidden depths of Sally but maintaining the hardened, callous facade. His foil comes in the form of the expert printer in the group Adolf Burger (Diehl), a man insistent that he should take no part in helping the Nazis and who goes to great lengths to interfere with the project and prevent the Nazis getting what they want. An idealist and moralist he would rather die fighting his captors than live comfortably helping them. The interplay between Markovics and Diehl is great and between them they explore the question of whether it is better to survive at any cost or rather die than have a hand in evil deeds. There is nothing  simplistic here, no black and white, just shades of grey.

Even Herzog is not as straightforward as he seems. A Nazi officer he doesn’t hold much stock with the ideology and is, like Sally, an opportunist who hedges his bets and looks out for himself above all other things. Not being constrained by Nazi dogma he is relatively kind to the men working on the project, giving them decent food and accomodation, allowing them leisure time and entertainment. He even keeps his sadistic second in command in check. This isn’t because he is a humanitarian but because he knows that by rewarding and nurturing the counterfeiters he will get better results.

Rather than going all out to depict the full horror of the death camps, Ruzowitsky picks his moments well to bring the reality of the situation crashing into the insulated world of Operation Bernhard. When the men are taken to be showered Kolya panics, convinced this is the end and they are to be gassed. The execution of an inmate by a camp guard on the other side of the wall to the workshops in which the Bernhard men live intrudes on their space shot by shot as the bullets rip through the timber. Absorbed by their work and lost in the relative luxury of their accomodations each of these events serves as a powerful reminder to the counterfeiters of just exactly where they are and the gravity of the situation they are in. The effect on the viewer is just as powerful.

It’s a tasteful and compelling film. It doesn’t attempt to bludgeon you with the atrocity of Hitler’s “Final Solution” but rather points to it through subtle and horrific clues throughout. It also tells an important story about the largest counterfeiting operation in history. Most importantly, it scales the story down to just a few people making it really accessible and very effective. It’s not quite Life Is Beautiful but it’s definitely vastly superior to The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas.

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