Film tells emotional Nazi-era story


The Oscar-winning historical drama The Counterfeiters is based on events surrounding a Nazi plan to use concentration camp inmates to counterfeit Allied currency, an operation to be led by a Jewish master counterfeiter.

This true story is the basis for the Austrian-made World War II drama The Counterfeiters , which won the 2008 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and is now making its local debut at Plaza Frontenac Cinema on Friday, April 4, for at least a weeklong run. The film is in German, Russian, English and Hebrew, with English subtitles.


The Oscar is an honor The Counterfeiters certainly deserved. Like several recent films about the Shoah, it is a survivor’s tale but it is fraught with gray areas of choice between survival and aiding the enemy. The powerful drama explores moral nuances, in the carefully constructed unfolding of events where the right choice is not always so clear, and features a strong, subtle performance in the lead role. The film has moral complexity but it also has great humanity, with a central character whose cynical attitude is worn away by contact with the people who share his experiences.

When the affable but coolly- controlled nightclub owner Salomon “Sally” Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics), is arrested by the Nazi police in late-1930s Germany, it is for trying to counterfeit American dollars, not for being Jewish. The bohemian Sorowitsch is largely indifferent to his Jewish heritage, cynically remarking that the Jews are persecuted because “they don’t know how to adapt.” Sally is very good at adapting, a likeable rogue with a dry wit, who slips pass most trouble.

The Nazis are another matter. They ship him off to a labor camp with other criminals, where Sorowitsch witnesses and endures Nazi brutality. Fatalistic in his view of events, he chooses to focus on self-preservation and starts looking for an opportunity to better his personal lot. Above all else, Sorowitsch is a survivor.

When the Nazis decide to produce counterfeit British and American currency, with the goal of undermining the economic stability of the Allies, they naturally want the master counterfeiter in charge. They transfer him to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp to head up “Operation Bernhard,” to be the biggest counterfeit money scam of all time. The operation’s director, Sturmbannf ührer Herzog (Devid Striesow), assembles of a collection of printers, forgers, papermakers, engravers and bankers to work under Sorowitsch in the counterfeiting operation. All the team members understand the penalties for failure to both cooperate and achieve the Nazis’ goals, while facing the dilemma of helping the Nazi war effort.

Among those on the counterfeiting team are master printer Adolf Burger (August Diehl), physician Dr. Klinger (August Zirner) and young Russian art student, Kolya Karloff (Sebastian Urzendowsky). Burger is a young idealist who published a Communist newspaper before he and his beautiful young bride were sent to Auschwitz. Everyone develops a protective fondness for young Kolya, particularly fellow Russian and former art student Sorowitsch.

Superb acting ensures that the powerful drama avoids melodramatic pitfalls. The director studiously avoids clich éd characters. Each is fresh and human in their complexity.

The dramatic center of the film largely hinges on Sorowitsch. Sorowitsch is a flinty character, played brilliantly by Markovics, an unlikely well of humanity yet clearly admired for his leadership. Markovics deftly underplays his character, with a rugged face that hardly moves, making the times Markovics’ character struggles with his conscience all the more affecting. It is a brilliant performance.

Other actors likewise turn in strong performances. August Diehl is affecting as the idealistic Burger, a foil for Sorowitsch’s survival instincts, who is willing to sacrifice others as well as himself for the greater good. Likewise, August Zirner, as the physician who soothingly misdirects the Nazis, and Sebastian Urzendowsky as young Kolya, admiring Sorowitsch like a father, create believable, multi-layered characters. Actor Devid Striesow’s Herzog is pleasant, almost reasonable on the surface but there is an oily opportunism underneath.

Writer/director Stefan Ruzowitzky has created a story that mirrors the moral complexity of the real, filled with characters that are more than the one-dimensionally heroic figures one might expect. Their flawed humanity only sharpens the story.

Ruzowitzky, who also co-wrote the screenplay from the book by the real Adolf Burger, wisely restricts what the audience sees to the viewpoint of the inmates in the counterfeiting compound. The counterfeiting crew is kept isolated from the rest of the camp, getting better food, real beds and an exercise yard. They hear faintly what goes on beyond the high fence that circles their compound but they, and we in the audience, see only the sky above and their work area. In their marginal comfort, the prisoners share stories of other camps and speculate on what might be happening.

The film is shot in shades of gray, underlining the doubts and moral gray areas where they tread, balanced between cooperating enough to stay alive and failing to aid the Nazi war effort. Every shot in the film is from the point of view of the prisoners.

Ironies are also everywhere in the film. The counterfeiters work to the strains of light operetta, a historically accurate detail. As the work crew is assembled, a group of bankers object to being forced to work for a criminal like Sorowitsch, citing that they are honest, moral men, much to the amusement of both the Nazis in charge and Sorowitsch. While others shudder at being given suits of clothing with other people’s name sewn in, to replace their prison uniforms, Sorowitsch dons his suit without blinking but adds an ascot he fashions from a rag, perhaps in part to irritate the Nazi guards. Yet, the issue of “survivor’s guilt” is also raised.

While The Counterfeiters is not the definitive Shoah film by any means, it is another survivors tale well told, and each tale retold ensures remembrance. As a film experience, the well-made, powerful and very human drama The Counterfeiters is well worth the effort.

The Counterfeiters opens at Plaza Frontenac April 4.