CAPSULE: The Austrian-German production THE COUNTERFEITERS is good cinema that deals with serious moral issues. It is about the ethical question of concentration camp prisoners prolonging their lives by helping the Nazi war effort. The issue is at what cost is survival. Writer/director Stefan Ruzowitzky does not give a pat and easy answer. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
Based on a true incident, THE COUNTERFEITERS tells a story that is roughly parallel to SCHINDLER'S LIST, but makes its central theme a moral issue that was entirely side-stepped by the Spielberg film. The story involves concentration camp inmates who survive by allowing the Nazis to use their talents to further the German war effort. Of course, many prisoners were in the position from the Jewish Sonderkomandos to the slave laborers who assembled the V-2 rockets at Mittelbau-Dora Concentration Camp to many different types of slave laborers in the camps. Nearly everybody who was not murdered was put to use in some way for their Nazi captors. Is this work acceptable in the name of self-preservation? Does it become less acceptable if the work being done actually makes a strategic difference in the war? In SCHINDLER'S LIST workers were making enamel cookware for the army. It did not make a big contribution to the Nazi war effort, but it made a difference. In THE COUNTERFEITERS the work being done could easily destabilize the economies of Britain and the United States.
Stefan Ruzowitzky's film focuses on Salomon "Sally" Sorowitsch (played by Karl Markovics) a counterfeiter who is living a high life in Berlin of the early 1930s. Then he is captured by police Superintendent Friedrich Herzog (Devid Striesow). Herzog does not hide his admiration for Sally whom he admits he considers the best counterfeiter in the world. In time not dramatized in the film Sally goes to prison. When the political situation becomes worse he is moved to Mauthausen concentration camp. There Sally is able to trade his talent as a graphic artist in return for some modest mouthfuls of food, and hence is able to stay alive. Suddenly he is transferred to Sachsenhausen camp. Expecting the worst he finds instead that he has been hand-picked by Friedrich Herzog. Herzog is heading a project to destabilize the economies of enemy countries. He is using his knowledge of counterfeiting to run Operation Bernhard, an operation within the camp to print up millions of counterfeit pounds and dollars. They will be put into circulation intended to ruin the economies of the United States and Britain. Not incidentally the money is also needed to buy petroleum and other resources that the Third Reich is running short on.
Within the camp Herzog has a whole printing shop staffed with dozens of prisoners working on creating undetectable forgeries of foreign money. Herzog's admiration for Sally's skills prompts him bring in the master forger to manage his shop. Just a few feet away people in the thousands are being murdered and the staff of this shop is living in conditions perhaps not comfortable, but easily survivable.
Not everybody in the shop feels that this sort of survival is worth having knowing that it is supporting the Third Reich and helping them to continue their factory murder practices. Counterfeiters are playing ping-pong in their off-hours where murders are taking place right outside the windows. Adolf Burger (August Diehl) is Sally's press operator who wants to sabotage the project, even if it will bring the Nazis down on the whole shop of workers. Sally has to decide between protecting the workers who are depending on him for their safety or sacrificing them all to stop the Nazi plan. For a man who is basically a ruthless criminal, he is in an unfamiliar position making serious moral decisions.
The film's grim visual style complements the subject matter. The colors are washed out in the camp scenes to give an atmosphere as downbeat as could be created in monochrome. As Sally, Karl Markovics shows little emotion. He coldly calculates and plans to do what he can to do good without doing bad in the process.
Films about moral issues are not uncommon. Films that leave the questions open are considerably rarer. This film trusts the viewer to make his own moral judgements as well as dramatizing a nearly forgotten chapter of history. I rate it a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0813547/
For more information on Operation Bernhard, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Bernhard and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adolf_Burger.
Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2008 Mark R. Leeper