COUNTERFEITERS, THE (Fälscher, Die)(director/writer: Stefan Ruzowitzky; screenwriter: based on the book “The Devil’s Workshop” by Adolf Burger; cinematographer: Benedict Neuenfels; editor: Britta Nahler; music: Marius Ruhland; cast: Karl Markovics (Salomon Sorowitsch), August Diehl (Adolf Burger), Devid Striesow (Friedrich Herzog), Dolores Chaplin (the Red-Haired Woman), August Zirner (Dr. Klinger), Marie Bäumer (Aglaia); Runtime: 98; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Josef Aichholzer/Nina Bohlmann/Babette Schröder; Sony Pictures Classics; 2007-Austria/Germany-in German with English subtitles)
“This dark arty film also has some entertainment value due to Austrian actor Markovics and his ability to inhabit his complicated character in a convincing way.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Austrian writer-director Stefan Ruzowitzky (“Anatomy 2″/”Anatomy”/”All the Queen’s Men”) superbly directs this hauntingly bleak true Holocaust survival story with an ambitious moral twist that’s based on the book “The Devil’s Workshop” by Adolf Burger. The Holocaust survivor is the Russian-Jew named Salomon “Sally” Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics), a world-class forger from the pre-war days of 1936 living in luxury as a renown criminal figure in the Berlin underground scene, who is captured by the Nazis in 1944 and sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. The Nazi officer who captured Sally, Herzog (Devid Striesow), got promoted for that effort and now enlists the beaten-down inmate in a scheme to counterfeit British and American money and IDs in a massive Nazi counterfeiting operation aimed to both finance their war effort and wreck the economies of their enemies. It was known as “Operation Bernhard” and proved to be the biggest counterfeit-money scam ever. At the camp, two barracks are isolated from the rest of the camp and transformed into a fully equipped workshop for the Jewish counterfeiters. The Nazis promised them a chance to survive and kept them as elite prisoners in a so-called “golden cage” by granting special privileges such as adequate meals, showers, a soft bed to sleep in and a Ping-Pong table for recreation. The inmates were threatened with instant death if they chose to sabotage the operation. The crux of the film is about the moral choice the prisoners had of possibly saving their lives or risking death by following their principles. The questions asked have to do with how much one is willing to help the Nazis to survive and what obligation is there to sacrifice one’s life for the greater cause of mankind. These are not easy questions to answer if you weren’t there, and the film’s moral compass turns on these answers.
The wiry, observant, intense, laconic and pragmatical Sally is riveting as a loner who tries to figure out how to deal with this mess he’s in and still remain true to himself. He manages to follow his old thief’s code of honor to look out for himself first but to keep an eye out in sabotaging his enemy whenever he can, only how much of his humanity has he lost playing this edgy game becomes a question that’s hard to answer. The one thing Sally will not sanction is any inmate ratting out another, for any reason. Sally must navigate his way between the cynical but demanding Nazi overseer Herzog and the self-destructive idealistic left-wing activist inmate Burger (August Diehl), who opts to sabotage the Nazis’ plan and thereby risk getting all the Jewish counterfeiters killed. Burger compromises under pressure from the others, as he takes the course of slowing down Operation Bernhard by carefully sabotaging the counterfeiting process in a way to delay it but not to such a degree that it will cost the lives of his inmate co-workers. This risky act brings Burger into conflict with Sally, who is neither hero nor villain but a flawed anti-hero character who has to wrestle with his artistic sensibilities to do a professional job and that he’s a Jew incarcerated by Germans who think of the Jews as filth and wish to eradicate them.
This dark arty film also has some entertainment value due to Austrian actor Markovics and his ability to inhabit his complicated character in a convincing way, that makes his survival tactics akin to a film noir gangster trying to beat the system through his guile. Sally’s ambiguity about what action to take and his recognition of his shortcomings, keeps things suspenseful, credible and compelling to the very end while its post-war look at Sally gambling at a Monte Carlo casino with a satchel full of American money provides the film with a romantic touch to counter all the previous grimness.
REVIEWED ON 5/10/2008 GRADE: B+
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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