Karl Markovics as Salomon Sorowitsch, Devid Striesow as Friedrich Herzog, and Martin Brambach as Holst
A forger faces a real dilemma
By Leonard Quart
Considering how many Holocaust documentaries and features have been produced by now, one might imagine the difficultly in coming up with a unique slant on the subject. The Austrian nominee for Best Foreign Language film, The Counterfeiters, is a true and singular story based on a concentration camp memoir by Adolf Burger, a professional printer and Communist. The films central character is Burgers (August Diehl) friend and inmate, Saloman Sally Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics in a powerful performance) a lean, arrogant, remote forger arrested by the Germans as a career criminal and a Jew. When his unique talents are noticed, hes incarcerated in Sachsenhausen concentration camp. There, he becomes part of Operation Berhard, an extensive scheme by the Nazis to produce fake foreign currency and disrupt the English and American economies as the war draws to a close.
Directed by German filmmaker Stefan Ruzowitzky, the film provides a fluid, tense, moving but emotionally restrained account of a group of concentration camp inmates professional printers, expert graphic artists and bank officials brought in from other camps and kept in two barracks (the Golden Cage), separated from the rest of the prisoners. They are given soft beds, weekends off, second hand clothes collected from concentration camp inmates whose nametags often can be found inside, and other special privileges as long as they co-operate. If they refuse to, the alternative they face is the oblivion of the gas chamber.
Though they exist in a relatively sheltered situation, these specialists are sometimes brutally abused by the Gestapo, and often must listen to the piercing screams of the camps less privileged inmates. They are never allowed to forget where they are, and who has life and death power over their lives. Sorowitsch is the most talented of the group, and establishes an unequal but special relationship with Herzog (Devid Striesow), the SS officer in charge of the counterfeiting operation an insidious, self-interested opportunist, who like Sally is more interested in survival than principles (he does not consider himself a Nazi). But there are differences between the two. Herzog, the outwardly amiable family man, is also a murderer. A strong, formidable Sally may be committed to survival at all costs, but develops into a man who cares deeply about his fellow inmates and tries in myriad ways to protect them.
His friend Burger is an idealist who opts to wear the concentration camps striped uniform instead of civilian clothes, and begins to sabotage the counterfeiting process despite increasing threats from the desperate SS officers. At the heart of the film lies the conflict between his and Sallys notions of morality.
Reflecting the moral ambiguity of the situation, The Counterfeiters does not portray either man as a hero. If the choice is sabotage, the lives of all the men on the project are sacrificed, and if one helps the Nazis succeed with this scheme, the faltering German war effort is strengthened. The film provides no answer to the moral dilemma the characters face; before it can make any difference, the project ends with the fall of Berlin
What struck me is how these men living in relative comfort differ from Primo Levis vision of life in the camps, where a man becomes non-human when he has lived for days where he is turned into a thing by other men. Both Sally and Burger are able to preserve their humanity, and the capacity to make moral decisions.
Ruzowitzky has made an unsentimental film, which, except for the gray bleakness of the camp, barely details the nuances of its daily life. The emphasis is on moral choice, and in the final scene we see Sorowitsch in Monte Carlo, disgusted by the life he is now leading on the currency that he forged for the Nazis, gambling it all away. Obviously, hes besieged by guilt, but his last words imply that he has no plans to change his corrupt behavior.
The Counterfeiters should be recognized as a work of genuine intelligence.