By Connie Ogle
Like Schindler’s List, The Counterfeiters relies on a true and fascinating chapter of Holocaust history to explore questions on the nature of heroism and the power of the human desire for survival.
Winner of this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, it sets a compelling moral dilemma around the story of a counterfeiting ring operated by prisoners in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp north of Berlin during World War II.
The film doesn’t always escape Holocaust film cliches, but, based on the observations of professional printer Adolf Burger, who was incarcerated at Sachsenhausen along with other Jewish typesetting experts, graphic designers and printers, it is always intriguing as it follows the arrest and captivity of Salomon Sorowitsch (the terrific Karl Markovics), one of Germany’s leading counterfeiters.
Salomon (or Sally, as he’s known), is clearly a survivor. He finds ways to wangle or steal extra food by sketching portraits of camp guards and their families or painting propoganda murals. When he’s shipped to Sachsenhausen to join ”Operation Bernhard” — the largest counterfeiting operation in history — Saloman arrives to find clean bunk beds, a shining workplace and two barracks’ worth of other men under the direction of Sturmbannfuhrer Herzog (Devid Striesow), who has one goal: to reproduce the British pound and the U.S. dollar so that the Nazis can flood the Allies’ economies and continue to finance their war effort.
The dilemma for the men, all Jews, is this: To avoid the fate of the prisoners outside their safe barracks, whose cries they hear from time to time, they must recreate the perfect counterfeits. But can they really live with doing so, knowing success could prolong the war and aid their tormenters? Burger (August Diehl), a Communist, says no and dares Sally to refuse along with him. But risking his life for a greater cause does not come naturally to Sally, who also longs for the professional challenge of cracking the mysteries of the dollar.
Though it is laced with psychological intensity, The Counterfeiters takes on some dimensions of a contemporary thriller as it plays out against the washed-out colors and moody lighting of the camp. Sally’s internal struggle takes shape after a predictable event, but as his battered moral compass rises against his desire for survival, it’s impossible not to respond to The Counterfeiters and the haunting questions it raises.
Cast: Karl Markovics, August Diehl, Devid Striesow
Director: Stefan Ruzowitzky
Screenwriter: Stefan Ruzowitzky. Based on ”The Devil’s Workshop” by Adolf Burger.
Producers: Josef Aichholzer, Nina Bohlmann, Babette Schroder
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Running time: 98 minutes. Some strong violence, brief sexulity/nudity, language. In German with English subtitles. Playing at Regal South Beach, Sunrise Cinemas in Broward and Regal Shadowood in Boca Raton.