EmptyBERLIN -- Based on a true story, "The Counterfeiters" has a fantastic element that makes you realize that there are still stories about concentration camps that are new and fresh.
In this case, it is "Operation Bernhard," which occupied a couple of cell blocks in the Sachenhausen camp, where the Nazis put professional specialists -- all Jews -- to work counterfeiting identity papers, passports but especially the currency of the Allies. The idea was to flood financial markets with counterfeit pounds and dollars to destabilize those economies and replenish Nazi coffers.
The drama here, only slightly fictionalized, centers on the "king of the counterfeiters," a Russian Jew named Salomon "Sally" Sorowitsch; a passionate anti-Nazi and fellow counterfeiter Adolf Burger, who does everything he can to sabotage the effort; and wily Commandant Friedrich Herzog, whose own well being relies on the success of the operation.
The German-Austrian film, in Competition here, seems a natural for art houses and even, in Europe, mainstream cinemas. North American distribution is a distinct possibility.
Austrian director Stefan Ruzowitzky's script is based on Burger's memoir, "The Devil's Workshop," but he makes no bones about the fact that his fascination lies not with Burger but the enigmatic Sorowitsch. Here is a man who plays everything in life close to the vest. Survival is his way of thumbing his nose at the Nazis, but he fails to calculate what can only be called the downside of survival.
The movie is book-ended with a sequence in Monte Carlo at war's end involving this man. The story quickly flashes back to 1936 Berlin where Sorowitsch (a very angular and often expressionless Karl Markovics) displays himself as an artist and bon vivant. But rather than earn money by making art, he says he prefers to make money by simply making money. All this comes to an abrupt end when he is arrested by an underworld acquaintance, Herzog (Devid Striesow), who turns out to be a police inspector.
Sally survives several years in the camps through his artistic skills, painting loving portraits of Nazi families or patriotic murals. Then his old friend Herzog recruits him for the "Golden Cage" in Sachenhausen. Here inmates are bribed with soft beds, good food, classical music and even medical attention. In return, they are to use their collective skills to forge money for the now bankrupt Third Reich.
To Sorowitsch, this is a challenge to his artistry as well as a pragmatic means of survival. To fellow prisoner Burger (August Diehl) though, their efforts are helping to finance the Nazi war machine. Thus natural survival instincts come up against the moral price one is willing to pay.
The two come to an unspoken agreement: Sorowitsch will continue to fabricate perfect forgeries, while Burger will continue to screw up the gelatin needed for printing. Sorowitsch refuses to rat out a fellow prisoner, but not all prisoners, having grown morally and spiritually soft, agree. Death threats in concentration camps must be taken seriously.
Even more intriguing is the absolutely poisonous and sycophantic relationship between Sally and Herzog. As Herzog, Striesow has an oily smile that is frightening to behold. Never has a smile held less mirth. It's absolutely toxic yet Sorowitsch takes it as a challenge -- both to his counterfeiting skills and his skills at staying alive. As the winds of war shift, Herzog's smile takes on new meaning, for Sorowitsch has become his passport, so to speak, to escaping the Allies.
Ruzowitzky builds suspense and deepens character relationships as the tension mounts. He has cinematographer Benedict Neeuenfels create a very grainy look while filling the soundtrack with Italian operettas and other Mediterranean-flavored music that one does not associate with concentration camps. This makes for a dislocation, where brutality and cruelty can exist just beyond a wooden fence where the counterfeiters play ping-pong, but the well-fed men can learn to shut their ears to the screams and gunshots.
The question of survival vs. martyrdom is never really answered, nor can it be. In the end, one can conclude from this story that both sides are right. The delaying tactics of the counterfeiters actually worked. But as Sorowitsch sits on that lonely Monte Carlo beach and heads for the casino, the enormity of what happened to him hits him in the solar plexus.
Magnolia Filmproduktion and Aichholzer Film in a co-production with ZDF and Babelsberg Film
Writer-director: Stefan Ruzowitzky
Based on the book by: Adolf Burger
Producers: Josef Aichholzer, Nina Bohlmann, Babette Schroder
Director of photography: Benedict Neuenfels
Production designer: Isidor Wimmer
Music: Marius Ruhland
Costume designer: Nicole Fischnaller
Editor: Britta Nahler
Salomon Sorowitsch: Karl Markovics
Burger: August Diehl
Herzog: Devid Striesow
Holst: Martin Brambach
Dr. Klinger: August Zirner
Aglaia: Marie Baumer
No MPAA rating, running time 98 minutes