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Although most of the legendary stories from the Holocaust have already been told, filmmakers continue to mine the events for their dramatic value. In recent years though, it may have seemed that moviemakers ran out of true stories of any real interest, especially with some of the weaker documentaries. But just when I thought I'd seen every variation on the concentration-camp theme, along comes The Counterfeiters. This film, directed by Austrian Stefan Ruzowitzky, won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar this year, and is a fascinating look at a little-known chapter in the history of World War II: How the Nazis set up a group of Jewish inmates to counterfeit British pounds and American dollars.
Based on the memoir The Devil's Workshop by Adolf Burger (one of the inmates), the film shows how although the Nazis professed to despise the Jews, they were very shrewd about using the skills their prisoners possessed. This counterfeiting operation, according to the film, was the largest in history (they successfully forged more than 130 million pounds), and was aimed at destabilizing the Allied economies as well as providing the Nazis with much-needed cash to purchase supplies and raw materials.
The movie focuses on career counterfeiter Salomon (Sally) Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics), a Russian-born Jew living in Germany who was arrested for his criminal activity in the Thirties. Housed in brutal work camps, he massaged his bleeding hands at night until he could sketch, and became known to his captors as a gifted artist, painting flattering portraits and murals depicting them in heroic scenes. This allowed him to avoid backbreaking manual labor and earn heart-breakingly small rewards, such as the opportunity to eat the Nazis' discarded snacks. When the Nazis decided, in 1944, to bolster their war effort by putting forged banknotes into the world economy, they tapped Sally to run the operation.
The Counterfeiters tells the story of a disparate group of Jewish bankers, forgers, artists and printers brought together to pull this off. It delves into an aspect of the Holocaust rarely considered: How in addition to everything else the Jewish prisoners lost, they were also deprived of their real professions. As the foreman of the printing workshop shows Sally around, the man looks at the amazed forger and says: "I know. The smell of a printing press - it makes you feel human."
The Nazi commander who supervises them, Herzog (Devid Striesow), gives them privileges unheard of for camp inmates, such as decent food and comfortable beds. "I'm interested in managing people; that's where the future lies," Herzog tells his squad of counterfeiters. Sally is portrayed as a kind of tense, ascetic cousin to the raffish Rick in Casablanca, who claims that he sticks his neck out for no man but quietly engages in his own brand of heroism. Although Sally says he cares only for survival, his actions tell a different story. He takes an ailing artist from Odessa under his wing, cajoling the young man to eat by telling him, "One [spoonful] for the Expressionists, one for the avant-garde." Later, Sally takes extreme measures to obtain medicine for him.
The major conflict in the story is over what these prisoners will do in order to survive, and it's played out in the tense relationship between Sally and Adolf Burger (August Diehl), the inmate who eventually went on to write The Devil's Workshop. Burger is portrayed as an idealistic Communist who wants to sabotage the forgery operation, saying they should not do anything to help the German war effort. Burger's insistence on destroying the negatives for the dollar that Sally creates puts all their lives in jeopardy.
"You just want to save your own shitty life," Burger berates Sally.
"Our own shitty life is all we have," Sally snaps back, and Burger says this attitude is why Nazism has succeeded.
It's an interesting debate, if not exactly a new one, and it will raise questions for each viewer as to what he or she would have done in similar circumstances.
In addition to the literate and intelligent dialogue, what makes The Counterfeiters more than a big-budget TV movie are the performances, particularly Karl Markovics as Sally. He barely changes his expression throughout the film, but you can see the tension and fear in every muscle of his body. A framing device in which he lives it up in Monte Carlo with some of the forged currency after the war shows how he can't really enjoy anything the world has to offer after what he's been through. August Diehl as Burger also does outstanding work as a character who veers wildly between nobility and self-righteousness. The other members of the ensemble cast turn in nuanced, compelling performances.
One non-issue that some reviewers have misguidedly tried to turn into an issue is Burger's ethnicity. Since Burger talks about his Communist ties and how he was arrested for printing Communist propaganda, some viewers have assumed he was not Jewish, and that the filmmakers were trying to make an objectionable point by showing that the only inmate who proposes heroic resistance is a gentile. In fact, Burger was Jewish (or is, since the real Adolf Burger is still alive and has given some interesting interviews to promote the film). In a late scene, he says so explicitly, showing his tattoo from Auschwitz to convince some of the starving Jewish inmates that he is one of them in spite of his cushy barracks and clean clothes.
Why anyone would make this mistake is baffling, since Burger is not the first or the only Jewish Communist in history.
Although there is nothing ground-breaking about The Counterfeiters, it tells a moving and engrossing story with depth and intelligence, and is well worth seeing.