The Counterfeiters (2007)
“It takes a clever man to make money, it takes a genius to stay alive”
Director: Stefan Ruzowitzky
Cast: Karl Markovics, August Diehl, Devid Striesow
Synopsis: The Counterfeiters is the true story of the largest counterfeiting operation in history, set up by the Nazis in 1936.
This Austrian depiction of a true event in the German concentration camps of WWII, while relating a compelling story, is problematic on a number of counts, foremost of which is the fact that arch-counterfeiter Salomon Sorowitsch (Karl Marcovics) is such a difficult man to like. In a brief pre-war sequence set prior to his arrest by CID detective Herzog (David Streisow) – a man who will play an important part in Sorowitsch’s life – the man is portrayed as something of an oily charmer, an undeniable low-life and bad guy who forsakes his natural artistic talents for the easier path of counterfeiting large amounts of money. While the film takes care to avoid representing ‘Sally’ as some kind of hero, its matter-of-fact reportage of the sequence of events that lead him to the post-war casino in Monte Carlo is subsequently rendered remote, even sterile, on occasion.
Despite this, the film is extremely well-made, and Benedict Neuenfels hand-held cinematography captures a fly-on-the-wall atmosphere that places the viewer squarely in the middle of the action – even when much of the action doesn’t really feel as if it is taking place in the midst of the holocaust – the singular most horrific event of the 20th Century.
After recounting the path that takes Sally from being just another anonymous number in a concentration camp to becoming one of the privileged few under the initially paternal wing of Devid Streisow’s urbane Sturmbannfuhrer Friedrich Herzog (Sally’s arresting officer, now promoted to camp commandant), the film focuses on the moral dilemma the expert counterfeiters face as they enjoys the privileges of their position while wrestling with the fact that what they are doing is aiding the Nazi war effort and prolonging the war. In truth, the film focuses on Sally’s stubborn evasion of the moral questions raised by their position, the lone voice of conscience belonging instead to fellow-inmate Burger (August Diehl), a former political agitator whose efforts to sabotage the operation are viewed pretty much as an act of betrayal by his colleagues as he brings all their lives under threat.
The Counterfeiter tells a fascinating story, and Karl Markovics gives a terrific performance as Sorowitsch, a Jew who sees himself as a man apart from his race because of his ability to adapt – a quality he accuses the Jews of not possessing – and his willingness to do whatever is necessary to survive, something that all the characters – even Nazi commandant Herzog – have to do by the film’s end. The film’s concluding scenes, while clearly indicating Sally’s newly-discovered conscience, stop short of suggesting his redemption – a fact that contributes immensely to the believability of his character. Sorowitsch was a criminal – a highly accomplished one – and usually nothing, not even wars, will alter for the better the mind of the dedicated criminal.