In 1944, when the German Reich sees that the end is near, the Nazis decide to produce counterfeit banknotes in the currencies of their enemies to flood and weaken their economies. Notorious counterfeiter Salomon Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics), arrested before the war and now one of the millions of Jews in captivity, is roped in to help; at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, two barracks are separated from the rest of the camp and transformed into a fully equipped counterfeiter's workshop, housing a select few prisoners. Operation Bernhard is born and 132 million British pounds printed, under conditions that are tragic and spectacular - and despite opposition from fellow Jewish inmate, Adolf Burger (August Diehl).
Review by Louise Keller:
It won the foreign language Oscar and there is nothing fake or contrived about this astonishing true story about the men in a German concentration camp who fought their own little war for survival. But survival is not their only aspiration. Loyalty is also an essential currency and the vow never to 'squeal on one's mates' becomes an Everest almost too high to climb. Ultimately, The Counterfeiters is a story about relationships. It's about the relationships between the incarcerated Jewish counterfeiter and his SS superior as well as that with his principle-driven fellow prisoner. The story fascinates, as does the humanity of the man intent on survival who discovers that winning and losing can offer similar rewards. This is a unique story set in horrific times, when atrocities are every day events duplicated without the skill of a specialist.
The opening scene shows a man in a suit sitting on a pebbled beach. A newspaper's headline shouts the war is over (in French), as it washes to shore, while the lights twinkle brightly in Monte Carlo's infamous casino. Based on Adolf Burger's memoir The Devil's Workshop, Stefan Ruzowitzky's screenplay is set for the most part in the furthest distance imaginable from this playground of the rich and beautiful. It is 1936 and a band of men with varying skills, many from Auschwitz, have been gathered against their will at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp with one object in mind: to destroy the British economy. The challenge facing Karl Markovics' Salomon Sorowitsch and his colleagues is whether or not to sacrifice one's beliefs in order to live for today or face death today.
It is a film of superb performances, with Markovics as Sorowitsch, the man of varying scruples who is used by Devid Striesow's Sturmbannführer Friedrich Herzog for his own purposes. August Diehl plays Burger, the man who has lost everything except his principles and is unable to cry. There are incongruous scenes as operettas blare from the gramophone while the men concentrate on their mission for the enemy, and merciless killings occur only a few metres away. The mood is sombre as the story plays out with hauntingly disturbing scenes. Yet we are uplifted by this memorable story punctuated by elements so extraordinary, it could only be true.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Complex moral dilemmas make The Counterfeiters an absorbing and engaging drama, and the story is yet another good example of the hundreds if not thousands of stories from WWII that deserve to be told. This story, based on real events, combines elements of a thriller with that of war drama and character study as the specially selected little Jewish team are set to work forging not just documents but foreign currency by the millions. The interdependence between prisoner and captor is only one of the threads examined, while the disagreement over how to manage working for the hated Nazis by the Jews is the film's prime focus.
Karl Markovics plays the central character in a complex physical and mental portrait and imbues him with an irresistible cocktail of characteristics, ranging from noble to weasel. He is not held up to be a typical hero, a paragon of decency; he's a criminal and the war has given him a unique role. But in the film's final scenes, we sense just how he has changed. It's not what we expect and it's ambiguous. It's a successful characterisation because it offers complexity and self-contradiction in recognisably human form. His asymmetrical face and general physical unevenness helps, and his understated performance draws us in.
August Diehl has the tough role of the young ideologue, Alfred Burger, who wants to sabotage the work of the counterfeiters on principle, even if it invites a death sentence for the whole team. The film is partly based on the real Alfred Burger's memoirs, and it often asks us to weigh our own moral stance in this complex story.
Also outstanding is Devid Striesow as Herzog, the concentration camp officer charged by Himmles to deliver the forgeries - and deliver them quickly. He, too, adds layers to the basic figure of Nazi officer until we are no longer sure what and who we see.
Sombre as it is, with underlit scenes that deepen our sense of dread, The Counterfeiters is a melancholy work, which is meant as praise. My only gripe is the use of the hand held camera, which draws attention to itself; it adds nothing to the film's dramatic impact.
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COUNTERFEITERS, THE (MA)
CAST: Karl Markovics, August Diehl, Devid Striesow, Martin Brambach, August Ziner, Veit Stubner, Sebastian Urzendowsky, Andreas Schmidt, Tilo Pruckner
PRODUCER: Josef Aichholzer, Nina Bohlmann, Babette Schroder
DIRECTOR: Stefan Ruzowitzky
SCRIPT: Stefan Ruzowitzky (memoir by Adolf Burger)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Benedict Nuenfeld
EDITOR: Britta Nahler
MUSIC: Marius Ruhland
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Isidor Wimmer
RUNNING TIME: 98 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Madman
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: May 8, 2008