|Karl Markovics||Salomon Sorowitsch|
|August Diehl||Adolf Burger|
|Devid Striesow||Friedrich Herzog|
|Dolores Chaplin||Redhaired Woman|
|August Zimer||Dr. Klinger|
|Directed by||Stefan Ruzowitsky|
This year’s winning entry in Oscar’s Foreign Language division is a WWII concentration camp drama from Austria, loosely based on fact and steeped in moral ambiguity. It tells the story of a slick operator in the ‘30s Berlin underworld, Salomon “Sally” Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics), who is sort of a cross between Rick and Ugarte in Casablanca. Sally is an artist, which talent he applies to the forging of currency. “Why earn money by making art?” he philosophizes. “Earning money by making money is much easier.”
He is busted in 1936 by a Berlin counterfeit squad detective named Herzog (David Striesow), and winds up in the Mauthausen concentration camp. He’s there as a criminal, but he’s also a Jew, so his prison garb features a yellow star with a green patch on it to identify his double eligibility. But Sally plays the system and the angles, and he insinuates his way into a cushy job doing flattering portraits of Nazi officers and their families. While others around him are suffering and dying, he whiles away the war on relatively easy terms.
Then in 1944 Sorowitsch is transferred to another camp, Sachsenhausen, where a pet project of Himmler’s requires men of particular skills. Called Operation Bernhard, the plan is to cripple the economies of England and America by flooding them with millions of counterfeit pounds and dollars. The Nazis have rounded up a sort of Dirty Dozen of specialists from the ranks of bankers, printers, and forgers, with Sally at the helm. The Nazi officer in charge turns out to be Sally’s old nemesis, Herzog, whose arrest of the counterfeiter had gotten him noticed and landed him a job in the SS.
This Herzog is an agreeable sort for a Nazi SS anti-Semite. He’s not particularly rabid about either his anti-Semitism or his Nazism, and becomes fairly chummy with Sorowitsch. And why not? Sally is his meal ticket, his chance to impress the Reichsführer-SS by producing British and American currency which could tip the balance of the war toward Germany. Above all, Herzog is a survivor, happy to jump whichever way the winds of fortune are blowing.
In this, Herzog has a kindred spirit in Sally, whose philosophy is “adapt or die,” and he knows which one sounds better to him. Sally is scarcely more admirable than Herzog, and no more committed to his Jewishness than Herzog is to his anti-semitism. Sorowitsch is memorably portrayed by Markovics, an Austrian stage actor with a face like the blade of a shovel. His eyes downcast and shifty, he mouth impassive unless he needs to curve it into a servile smile, he will do whatever he has to do to stay alive, and will not apologize for it.
As recruits to Operation Bernhard, Sally and his team get special privileges: soft beds, ample rations, music, and civilian clothes (which have been stripped from the backs of incoming prisoners.) They even get a ping-pong table. But through the walls of their barracks they hear the sounds of the other Sachsenhausen, the blows and the screams and the gunshots.
Sally, like Alec Guinness’s Col. Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai, gets caught up in the enemy’s objective. Sally has the incentive of threats that his men will be executed if they don’t produce the dollar for the Nazis. But his idealistic teammate Adolf Burger (August Diehl) won’t play. He refuses to help finance the German war effort, even though it means danger and death for some or all of them (the movie is based on the memoir of the real-life Burger, a Slovakian Jew who survived Sachsenhausen and Operation Bernhard.) Burger stalls and sabotages, and things get bad. But outside, things are getting worse for the German fortunes of war, and before the final showdown, the war has ended and the Germans abandon the camp.
Issues of pragmatism versus principle permeate this movie, and when the counterfeiters, with their relatively nourished bodies and comfortable surroundings, come face to face with the emaciated survivors of the grimmer part of Sachsenhausen, it brings the issue into sharp relief without resolving it. The situation of the Operation Bernhard team has been a matter of opportunity, a circumstance which has not applied to the less fortunate prisoners. The movie opens and closes on a framing device which finds Sally in post-war Monte Carlo with a suitcase full of dollars, which allows it a philosophical coda.
The Counterfeiters, written and directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky, is a morally challenging twist on the long and honorable tradition of forgery movies. The list includes The Great Escape, another WWII picture, with Donald Pleasance’s memorable half-blind document faker, Hugh Griffiths’s genial art forger in How to Steal a Million, and Catch Me If You Can, with Leo DiCaprio keeping a nimble step ahead of federal agent Tom Hanks. One of my favorites, remembered from the mists of childhood, is Mister 880, which starred Edmund Gwenn (Miracle on 34th Street’s Kris Kringle) as a real-life New York junk dealer who had a long run making a little money on the side by printing one-dollar bills that had a typo in the word “Wahsington.”
© Text 2008 Jonathan Richards - Filmfreak.be