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Published:April 12th, 2009 20:38 EST
The Counterfeiters (Die Falscher) is a True Tale of Bogus Bills and Shaky Scruples.

The Counterfeiters (Die Falscher) is a True Tale of Bogus Bills and Shaky Scruples.

By John G. Kays

 

We wrestle with some universal issues here, our souls are rattled precipitously by such subhuman atrocities; what is protocol for a prisoner in a concentration camp? Are the instincts of survival exclusively at play, or should one pay homage to ethereal ethical principles?

alternate movie poster

 

The Counterfeiters, an Oscar winner this year for best foreign film (in German with English subtitles), is a charged package of drama that puts us in the line of fire. You and I are precisely there. No escaping is possible; we are forced to confront the abominations of incarceration by a ruthless throng of bully Fascists. With a staggering story snatched from the pages of history, creditable acting, and resonating themes, I am awarding it four and a half stars out of five.

 

 The discriminating acting of Karl Markovics as Sally is a study in emotive nuance and props it (the movie) up on a pedestal. Tonight (April 27th, 2008) I will watch Nazi Scrapbooks From Hell, a documentary about Auschwitz done by Erik Nelson, that uses photographs to bring these harrowing events to life. This is a non-fiction complement to the project under scrutiny here. Some films are just for fun, while others are made of the sterner stuff; The Counterfeiters is in the latter category and should be filed in the library of freedom` under: required viewing for all who cherish democracy`, if such a classification might be uncovered.  

 

The Counterfeiters (Die Falscher) is the story of Salomon Sally Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics), a master counterfeiter of currency and a forger of passports and documents. He is arrested and sent to the concentration camp Mauthausen in 1936, surely because he is a Jew, not because he is a criminal. Later he is transferred to Sachsenhausen and is commissioned by Herzog (David Striesow), the same S.S. officer who first arrested him, to create a factory for fake currency.

 

First they perfect British pound notes and even cajole the experts at the Bank of England, then they try to tackle the dollar, but run into some complications in duplicating it. Salomon Sorowitsch recruits a consortium of talented cronies, such as printers, chemists, graphic artists, and typographers for the Nazi enterprise. Specifically, the charge is to flood the western economies with bogus bills in order to sabotage those markets, and champion the charades of The Third Reich. The drama takes place within the confines of Sachsenhausen and is a survival story blearily in the template of Stalag 17 or Bridge Over the River Kwai.

 

The coveted inmates, in sharp contrast to say the condemned prisoners of Auschwitz, have bed linen, running water, piped in opera, and actual food, but the sound of gunfire and screams leak into their quarters as they play ping-pong or discuss their plight during spotty idle moments. As they succeed in producing the British pound the moral question arises: are we giving aid to the Nazis too freely? They begin to stumble while working on the dollar and are threatened with the gas chamber by Herzog, who is under pressure by Heinrich Himmler himself .

 

A trademark of this story is its ground in history; the screenplay, written by Stefan Ruzowitzky, (he does a proper job as director too) is culled from Adolf Burger`s (a Communist with scruples) The Devil`s Workshop. These memoirs document the scheme of the Nazis to counterfeit pound notes and dollars, a top secret project called Operation Bernhard, and as proof of its existence over one billion pounds in banknotes were recovered by the allies at the end of the war.

 

 The real Salomon Sorowitsch was a Russian Jew named Salomon Smolianoff. The counterfeit operation was directed by the Sicherheitsdienst (SD) and its commander, Reinhard Heydrich, who is also remembered (for certain infamously) as a master architect of the Holocaust. Noteworthy in its irony is the German slogan on the front entrance gate of Sachsenhausen: "Arbeit Macht Fre; translated as work brings freedom". 

 

The Counterfeiters is a focused character study of Solomon Sorowitsch, who has a knack for surviving in sticky circumstance. Sally is ever the pragmatist, who gives the Nazis their every wish, but by contrast, Adolph Burger (August Diehl) is an idealist willing to sabotage the operation for his beliefs. Friedrich Herzog (Devid Striesow), the commander of Sachsenhausen, secretly protects the expert counterfeiter, but as the Russians surround Berlin, he weathers the downgrades with struggle.

 

 Hauptscharfuhrer Holst (Martin Brambach) is an S.S. psycho who sadistically shoots prisoners for little reason. One critic has compared him to Colonel Klink or Sergeant Schultz in the TV staple, Hogan`s Heroes. Actually, this is a serious, chilly portrayal of a Nazi criminal, so no trace of comedy is conceivable; Holst is a big player in making the Holocaust a reality, and so the comparison is lame and inappropriate.

 

The incandescent acting of Karl Markovics is a bolt of lightning; you are inside his character as he circumnavigates Nazi landmines and plucks his confederates like pop-strings under a warm June sky. His Sally is shifty and criminal-like with a greedy twinkle in his eyes. Markovics masters the "life-long offender` angle of Sorowitsch with his dodgy eyes and angular face. His demeanor is crafty, nuanced, and he ambles about with chameleon-like instincts-he rides his environs with the dexterity of a high-wire acrobat-a Walinsky perchance.

 

Early on while still at Mauthausen he paints some picture-perfect portraits of Nazi officers, gaining their confidence. At Sachsenhausen he assembles a crack-A-squad that grinds out the fake British notes like an efficient Model-T-Ford assembly line. His portrayal is multifaceted though, and he evokes humanity for the prisoner with TB by feeding him and arranging for his needed medication from Herzog. Sally is humiliated by Holst in one scene (Holst urinates on him in a latrine) and he is filled with rage-he yanks out the wash basin in the bathroom! This signals a tell-tale shift in his perspective. 

 

His balanced portrayal is complimented by August Diehl`s role of Adolf Burger as the idealist who is willing to openly defy the Nazis. Devid Striesow as the commander Friedrich Herzog is on middle ground and he too survives through stealth and maneuvering. Finally, there is Holst (Martin Brambach) who is more of the garden variety, nefarious Nazi-robot killer, but that is not to say that just such brutes did not exist in Hitler`s real Reich. Coupled with the somber gray tones of the filming, an ambience of realism and depth projects from the screen; but as an oxymoron the acting is otherworldly!

 

A revelation for me is the plethora of striking scenes that freely pop into my mind throughout the day, with only a slightest suggestion. The fact that I can keep replaying the tape in my head is testament to its visual caliber. A few of the images are: the exhibition of the perfectly duplicated British pound by the crafty crew to Herzog. Another is a simple ping-pong game that is interrupted by gunfire just over the fence, when yet a further pointless execution is carried out by Holst. I can still see it, if I think on it. Next I envisage the rapid stealing of a mostly eaten S.S. officer`s apple by Sally, then his own consumption of said apple core in a flash of a millisecond.

 

The most vivid though, is one of the final scenes, where Sally carries the dead comrade who has TB to a designated convening point after the liberation of the concentration camp. Sorowitsch`s conversion to a "real humanity` is consummated in this exact scene. Did I not detect a dew-drop-tear in the eye of each and every member of the audience-yes, in just this moment of time?  The director of photography was Benedict Neuenfels and kudos should be clipped in at this juncture for the starkness, the clammy grays of his camera images. I actually awoke from a startled dream this very morn with the residue of the final sequence referenced still lodged in my circuits!

 

   The theme of The Counterfeiters is the moral dilemma that Sally finds himself in: to be or not to be, in a nutshell. Should he simply appease the Nazis and increase the probability of his survival, or should he defy them for his convictions (if he has any), then in short order be scurried off to the gas chambers? Just such a quandary is the focus of these ninety-eight moisture-brow minutes! My best observation is that Sorowitsch seems as if he is playing both sides of the fence, but favors `survival` over  `idealism`, in fair measure. I thought of Sir Thomas More in A Man For All Seasons, by way of contrast, who makes very different decisions; he is courageous enough to stand up for his beliefs, and refuses to sanction King Henry VIII`s annulment to his queen, Katherine of Aragon. Thus, he loses his head to the axe man for his lofty principles. Sally outlives` the war and gambles leisurely in Monte Carlo after some very troubling days.