Running Time 98 minutes
Written and directed by Stefan Ruzowitsky
Starring Karl Markovics, Devid Striesow, August Diehl
Stefan Ruzowitsky’s The Counterfeiters, from his own screenplay, based on the book The Devil’s Workshop by Adolf Burger, tells the true story of 45-year-old German-Jewish master counterfeiter Salomon Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics). His struggle for sheer survival begins unexpectedly in Berlin in 1936, when after a night carousing in the city’s bohemian underworld with his counterfeit money, and ending up in bed with the glamorous Aglaia (Marie Baumer), he is arrested by Inspector Friedrich Herzog (Devid Striesow) of the Berlin vice squad and is sent to the Mauthausen concentration camp for Jews, Gypsies and other “professional criminals.” Sorowitsch soon discovers that Mauthausen is less an ordinary prison than a fiendishly designed death trap for its targeted inmates. To gain time he quickly displays his artistic talents to the Gestapo officers in charge of the camp, and earns special dispensations to paint their heroically posed portraits and those of their families. By these means he survives until 1944, when he is transferred to another camp in Sachsenhausen, where he meets his old nemesis, Herzog, now the Gestapo camp commandant in charge of Operation Bernhard, the biggest counterfeit currency operation of all time. At a moment when the vaunted Nazi war machine was in full retreat and disarray on both the Eastern and Western fronts, Heinrich Himmler and his Gestapo henchmen had hatched a plan, with Hitler’s approval, to wreck the British and American economies with billions of pound and dollar counterfeits deposited in Swiss banks. As it happened, Herzog had arranged for Sorowitsch to head the venture in charge of a crew of imprisoned printers, engravers, bank examiners and low-level technical craftsmen selected from the concentration camps in Europe.
Sorowitsch and his workers were segregated from the other prisoners in a comparative paradise of comfortable beds, nutritious food, clean clothes and showers spewing water rather than poison gas, but through the walls the cries and screams of their less fortunate brethren in the adjoining cells and execution chambers could be heard. Sorowitsch’s first triumph was the counterfeit pound note, a whole batch of which passed muster not only with the Swiss bank, but even with the Bank of England itself.
To the dismay of Herzog and his Gestapo superiors, Sorowitsch and his crew were making much slower progress with the dollar counterfeit because the program was constantly being sabotaged by Sorowitsch’s old friend Adolf Burger (August Diehl), an idealistic anti-Nazi, whose wife has been killed trying to escape from another concentration camp. This loss drives Burger even more in his determination to block Sorowitsch’s handiwork even at the risk of all their lives. Indeed, the surviving real-life Burger wrote the book on which the movie is based.
Although Sorowitsch opposed Burger’s disruptive tactics, he protected his old friend from the murderous wrath of the other crew members, who did not wish to become martyrs to Burger’s anti-Nazi zeal. Herzog had already warned them all that they faced the gas chambers if the operation failed.
We are a long way from the open-ended idealism of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993), which was criticized at the time by some for seeming to celebrate the rescue of a pitifully small number, in the low thousands, from the massive slaughter, in the millions, of the Nazi Holocaust. Mr. Ruzowitzky comes from a seemingly different direction than Mr. Spielberg as he strikingly confesses: “Being the grandchild of grandparents—some more, some less—attached to the Nazi party, and living in a country that still has problems dealing with its Nazi past, I always felt that I have to comment on the issue as a filmmaker. When I heard about the counterfeiters for the first time I knew right away that this might be the project for me.”
Schindler’s List was released almost a half-century after the first shocking footage of the Nazi death camps was shown to the world. Now a decade and a half has passed since Schindler’s List. How much longer can the Holocaust be treated on the screen in a spirit of universal repentance when new atrocities around the world are inducing a fresh outbreak of compassion fatigue among the supposedly well meaning among us, perhaps including us? In our media-drenched world and time, The Counterfeiters is not designed for the purpose of enlightening any Holocaust deniers still at large, and these include at least one prominent head of state. There is no footage in the film even suggesting the ultimate dimensions of the Nazi extermination process. The viewer is expected to supply his or her own context to the minimal spectacle on hand. The drama arises from the conflict between guilt and shame on the one side, and the very human instinct to survive in the midst of the most hellish chaos on the other.
Burger survives to write the book about his experiences, and Sorowitsch survives to gamble away all his counterfeit money on the gambling tables of Monte Carlo, perhaps intentionally to expiate some of his survivor’s guilt, the affliction that eventually claimed the life of so noble a personage as Primo Levi. Consequently, when some of Burger’s perversely privileged cellmates are prepared to kill him if necessary to preserve their cushy immunity from all the audible horrors on the other side of the wall, we are not conditioned to condemn them out of hand. After all, World War II and the Holocaust were so long ago, and our side did win despite last-minute infusions of counterfeit pound notes and dollar bills into our economies by a desperate Third Reich.
Nonetheless, The Counterfeiters manages to be more than a footnote to the gruesome history of the Holocaust. As it turns out, we apparently cannot be reminded often enough of what happens in even a very civilized country when the siren calls of racial, religious and ethnic hatred and scapegoating are allowed to poison the body politic. There is much talk these days of spreading democracy and freedom around the world, but it was the democratic system that placed Hitler in power, and it could happen again.
On its own terms, The Counterfeiters is graced with very luminous performances by Mr. Markovics as Salomon Sorowitsch, Mr. Diehl as Adolf Burger and Mr. Striesow as the wily, serpentine Herzog, a smilingly reassuring Satan, if ever there was one. It is a must-see, especially in this dreary movie season.