THE COUNTERFEITERS, winner of the Best Foreign Film Oscar for 2007, works on a number of levels. As pure film craft, it’s quite good in all respects, insofar as technique and skill behind and in front of the camera are concerned. As ‘another’ Holocaust film, it deftly examines a hitherto ignored piece of that horrific, ever-unfathomable mosaic of organized cruelty. As a movie set during WW2, it again plumbs the seemingly bottomless mine of gripping storytelling to be dredged from history’s biggest martial conflict, in this case, history’s largest counterfeiting operation. As a think-about-it piece it provokes discussion regarding the moral dilemma facing us in ultimate life-or-death situations: what would you do, and how much of it would you do, to stay alive?
Beyond scoring solidly in those layers, it also masterfully reveals War as, ultimately… Theft. Sure, blah-blah, there is self-defense of loved ones, and heroism, and sacrifice, and every kind of dignity-triumphant trumpet you might wish to toot, but how many on the winning or losing sides of all these fights ever get around to copping to “I want what he’s got and I’m going to take it” ? We’re waiting…
Here, the Nazi’s stand revealed as the swinish thieves they were, in a plan to not merely flood the Allies economies with fake pounds and dollars, ostensibly in service of the Reich and winning the war, but also–bonus!– grab as much loot for their personal pig-snouts as they could root while serving Adolph & Co. That they would use concentration camp inmates, including criminals and despised Jews to these ends is conveniently simple: “we have the guns and you don’t”.
Lucky for them they have master forger Salomon Sorowitsch, ripped from his decadent playboy highlife and consigned to Mauthausen and then Sachsenhausen concentration camps, where he (beautifully done by Karl Marcovics) not only heads up their “work and live longer” team of prisoners, but uses every atom of his wit to walk as many sides of the wire as he can, for himself, for the captors, for the other inmates. Under the thumb of a scheming Sturmbannfuhrer (Devid Striesow, giving Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List a run for Vile), the lash of a brute Hauptscharfuhrer (Martin Brambach), and the conscience-goading of a fellow prisoner, Communist resister Burger (August Diehl, playing the man whose memoir the film is based upon), Sorowitsch acts as the intellectual, emotional and psychological fulcrum of the story. Marcovics’ iron-controlled characterization is a subtle marvel of underplaying.
Written & directed by Stefan Ruziwitzky, running a trim 98 minutes, the $6,250,000 film was rewarded with a public response of $20,200,000, numerous awards and strong reviews. One small but telling element is the effective use of sound, in this case the ceaseless barking of guard dogs, off camera, casually reminding both the characters and audience of the vast outside entrapment wrapping bottomless inner turmoil. With Veit Stuber, Sebastian Urzendowsky, August Zirner, Dolores Chaplin (Charlie’s beautiful granddaughter).