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No Clear Answers Found in The Counterfeiters

  • Annabelle Robertson Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
  • 2008 8 Aug
  • COMMENTS
No Clear Answers Found in <i>The Counterfeiters</i>

DVD Release Date:  August 5, 2008
Theatrical Release Date:  February 22, 2008
Rating:  R (for some strong violence, brief sexuality/nudity and language)
Genre:  Drama/War
Run Time:  99 min.
Director:  Stephan Ruzowitzky
Actors:  August Diehl, August Zirner, Devid Striesow, Karl Markovics, Martin Brambach

“I won’t give the Nazis the pleasure of being ashamed that I’m alive,” says Salomon “Sally” Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics), the unlikely protagonist of this excellent Austrian-German story which won the 2008 Oscar for "Best Foreign Film."

Sally’s statement sums up the moral dilemma at the crux of the movie, but it’s far from the only one.  Eschewing clichés of concentration camp movies, Austrian director Stephan Ruzowitzky manages to inject a fresh angle into this story of a group of Jews caught between the fight for survival and the fight for their conscience.  Unlike so many other filmmakers, who allow us to enjoy the comfort of clear-cut boundaries between right and wrong, Rusowitzky keeps his character, and thus the message, ambiguous.  In so doing, he forces us to look inward and ponder what we would do, should we ever find ourselves in the same situation.

The situation is Operation Bernhard, a real-life, clandestine counterfeiting operation organized by the Third Reich to fund their bankrupt war machine while simultaneously crippling the British and U.S. economies.  Their plan was to create the perfect pound and the perfect dollar, then flood the two markets with forgeries.  They were almost successful.

We first meet Sally at the end of World War II in a Monte Carlo casino, where his shell-shocked face belies the luxuries he is now enjoying.  Flash forward to the beginning of the war, for the film’s initial bookend.  Here, Sally is in a German nightclub, amidst restless revelers who sense that their party is abruptly about to end. 

When someone asks Sally, a classically trained artist, why he doesn’t create art for a living, he replies, "Why earn money by making art?  Earning money by making money is much faster."  In the next scene, we see that Sally is not just a counterfeiter, however.  He’s the best.  But his attempts to forge the American dollar soon lead him into the handcuffs of Inspector Herzog (Devid Striesow), chief of the Berlin fraud squad. 

Three years later, Sally is in a concentration camp, using his wit and artistry to create patriotic portraits of Nazi officers in exchange for bread.  He is shipped to Sachhausen, another concentration camp, where he encounters Herzog who is now a commander.  Herzog escorts Sally and the other new arrivals to their barracks, which is filled with printing presses—and clean clothes, soft beds, cigarettes and opera music.  There, they meet a carefully chosen group of prisoners, skilled as printers, graphic design artists and even bankers.  Their job?  Create the pound, followed by the dollar.

Based on the wartime memoir, The Devil’s Workshop, of fellow prisoner Adolf Burger, The Counterfeiters wisely keeps its focus on the far more nuanced character of Sally, who insists that to survive, you must adapt.  At first, Sally has no qualms about the operation.  If anything, he’s delighted to be doing that which he loves best.  But Burger, a fiery Marxist, begins hammering away at him.  They’re funding the war, he says.  They must sabotage.  Sally just wants to survive.  But, even though Burger continues to destroy Sally’s work, placing them all at risk, Sally can’t rat on a fellow inmate.

The brilliance of the film lies in Marcovic’s performance, which Ruzowitzky wisely keeps subdued, making Sally’s trajectory unpredictable—and realistic.  It’s also the fact that Marcovic, by his looks and his character, is not a classic hero.  In fact, watching the film, you’re not sure if he’s a hero at all.  It’s like the green triangle that covers the yellow star on his prison garb.  The latter tells us we should pity him; the former, that he’s a criminal anyway.  What should we feel? Where do our sympathies lie?

More significantly, what would we do in his situation?  By sabotaging the operation, Burger and Sally could contribute to the Nazi downfall—but sacrifice the lives of fellow prisoners, as well as themselves.  By producing the required currency, however, they could save themselves—but extend the war, causing others to die. 

There are no clear answers, nor should there be.  And that’s why The Counterfeiters is so good.  It lets us think for ourselves.

DVD EXTRAS:

  • Commentary with director Stephan Ruzowitzky
  • The Making of The Counterfeiters
  • Interviews
  • Adolf Burger’s Artifacts
  • Q&A with director
  • Deleted scenes
  • Original theatrical trailer

CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol:  Numerous scenes with drinking and cigarette smoking.
  • Language/Profanity:  Numerous profanities and obscenities.
  • Sex/Nudity:  Extended shots of rear female nudity in a scene where an unmarried couple becomes intimate; a man urinates on another man (no nudity).
  • Violence:  Strong wartime violence, including characters who are shot at point blank range (on camera) and brutal beatings.  Most of the film takes place in a concentration camp with squalid conditions and harsh treatment of prisoners.