The Counterfeiters


Review by Willard Manus

There have been numerous concentration-camp movies, but few as unusual as THE COUNTERFEITERS (which won an Academy Award recently and was also featured in Palm Springs). Written and directed by the Austrian filmmaker Stefan Ruzowitzky, it deals with a secret Nazi project, "Operation Bernhard," whose aim was to subvert the economies of Britain and the USA by printing millions of fake banknotes. The job required the handiwork of master craftsmen--graphic artists, printers, paper makers, etc. To insure secrecy, the Nazis decided to do the work behind the prison walls of one of their concentration-camps. The craftsmen tapped for the job were all inmates of the camp--Jewish inmates, no less.

THE COUNTERFEITERS is based on The Devil's Workshop, a memoir published in the 70s by Adolph Burger, a Slovakian communist member of the forgery team, who is played by one of Germany's finest young actors, August Diehl. Burger isn't the protagonist of the movie, however. Karl Markovics, as master-forger Salomon Sorowitsch, takes on that role, giving a performance that seems astonishingly real.

Ex-art student Sorowitsch is first introduced in 1936 Berlin, where he lives the high life--printing fake money, gambling, drinking and whoring. Secretive, selfish and cunning, he's hardly a politically correct hero, Jewish or not. He lives for himself, mistrusting and scorning just about everyone else. He manages to stay one step ahead of the law, though, until an uncharacteristic mistake leads to his arrest.

In Mauthausen he survives by becoming the personal artist of the S.S. guards and administrators, only to be tapped to join the secret group in an isolated wing of the camp, where the counterfeiters live and work under the command of Friederich Herzog (David Striesow). Herzog, under intense pressure himself from the Nazi government, leans hard on Sorowitsch and the others, threatening them with death if they don't begin cranking out British pounds and U.S. dollars good enough to pass rigorous inspection.

Since the counterfeiters know this is one job that can't be brought off without them, they make demands on Herzog--asking for fancy food, comfortable beds, clean clothing. The Kommandant not only goes along with these requests but gives them a ping-pong table and the occasional party to help amuse them.

It's a remarkable, if somewhat ghoulish situation: a handful of prisoners enjoying such a soft, privileged life in the midst of a death factory. While they play ping-pong and eat steak, thousands of men, women and children are being beaten or gassed to death just beyond the walls of "the devil's workshop" in Blocks 18 and 19.

Men like Burger believe they are living immoral lives and that the only honorable course of action is resistance. After all, the fake money they were producing would not only prolong the war but might even help the Nazis win it. Burger and his comrades try and sabotage the printing process, only to be opposed by Sorowitsch, the cynic and pragmatist.

If they didn't fulfill Herzog's orders, he would kill them all, Sorowitsch points out. Not only that, even if they succeeded in churning out tens of millions of acceptable banknotes, the Nazis would still murder them once the operation was concluded. If marked for death, why shouldn't they live out their last days in style and comfort? Self-sacrifice and idealism were, at this point in time, for suckers.

Ruzowitzky dispenses with camp-movie cliches in THE COUNTERFEITERS. The Jews in the devil's workshop aren't depicted as sensitive, idealized intellectuals. On the contrary, they are tough, mostly working-class guys with harsh Berlin dialects, ready fists and angry natures. He also avoids all slickness in the way he shoots the film. The camera, largely hand-held, moves freely, staying close to faces, making the viewer feel he's right in the camp with the inmates, not observing it from afar. Also, every shot is from the POV of the prisoners, never the Nazis.

The resulting immediacy helps give THE COUNTERFEITERS a power and authenticity that are as remarkable as the story itself.