The Counterfeiters: A captivating account of a largely untold Holocaust story


posted 2/26/09 on 2009: A Film Odyssey


Boardman’s Art Theatre kicks ass. It’s hard to debate against that. And it’s going to be a sad loss when and if the business shuts down in a few months . . . Let’s cross our fingers and hope for the best, because that would be a huge blow to the arts community in C-U.

If Greg Boardman lets it run on his screen, it’s a safe bet that you’ll be entertained and enlightened. But let’s face it: no matter how much we’d like, it’s pretty much impossible to see every movie shown there. For one reason or another we miss catching an important film we should have seen, and so renting will have to suffice. This happened to me most recently with The Wrestler, though I’m hoping to see it in St. Louis this weekend.

But one from last Oscar season (or two seasons ago, depending on how you count) that I’m just now getting around to renting is Austria native Stefan Ruzowitzky’s The Counterfeiters (a.k.a. Die Fälscher, based on Adolf Burger’s book The Devil’s Workshop), a 2007 film that won much acclaim in Europe and abroad.


THE FILM

The Counterfeiters forces us to contemplate the harsh 20th century reality of Nazi Germany and Austria and the Jews they oppressed in concentration camps. Filmed in just 30 days using a raw documentary style, the film is based on Adolf Burger’s memoirs about his time as part of the Sachsenhausen counterfeiters’ unit, known as “Operation Bernhard.” Most names have been changed and some characters’ attributes have been softened or exaggerated, as we learn in Ruzowitzky’s special features Q&A, but the general story remains true: the Nazi war machine was running out of money toward the end of the Second World War, and they wanted to bankrupt Britain, so a portion of their captives experienced in printing and graphics were employed to help them produce counterfeit American dollars and British pounds.

These men received a reprieve from the horrible conditions experienced by most Holocaust victims. As incentives to produce good work, the Nazis let them sleep in soft beds, eat and smoke plenty, listen to music all day, and take weekends off to play cards and ping pong. Yet the atrocities committed around them kept them ever aware that they could only hope to survive by out-waiting the war, and so they weakened the Germans by working slowly and making mistakes on purpose.

Among the movie’s counterfeiters are Saloman Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics) and a fictionalized Adolf Burger (August Diehl). The two make an odd pair. The former, perhaps the greatest counterfeiter in all of Europe, receives scorn from his peers for his past criminal life despite his successes that keep them all alive. The latter is a socialist and intellectual originally jailed for his anti-Nazi propaganda posters. Though they exchange stories and play cards together, they butt heads on the subject of cooperating with their captors. While Sorowitsch believes there is no sensible alternative to completing their work and staying alive, Burger perceives the group’s accomplishments as great assets to Hitler’s regime and insists that they should sacrifice their lives to help end the war.

If the counterfeiters refuse to cooperate, can the Nazis just kill and replace them? If they succeed in printing a perfect match for the dollar, will they contribute to the demise of Europe? Should one just feel responsible for his own life, or for everyone’s lives? Thus, the film is a kind of “morality play,” as the director calls it, without a clear right or wrong answer.

In a brilliant ironic twist, Friedrich Herzog (Devid Striesow), the same cheery investigator who arrests Sorowitsch in Berlin for counterfeiting, becomes the officer charged with compelling the prisoners to mass-produce phony bills. He admires Sorowitsch and promises that he will live, considering him a “coworker.” At one point Herzog even invites Sorowitsch to visit his home, and we come to understand that he has some kind of sympathy for the Jews — or at least guilt for his transgressions.


SPECIAL FEATURES

  • Audio director commentary
  • Original trailer and previews
  • Director Q&A at the AFI Film Festival, wherein Ruzowitzky discusses the experience of writing the screenplay with Burger as his guide, his view of Counterfeiters as more of a morality play than history lesson, the need for contemporary Germans and Austrians to cope with the horrors of the 20th century, and filming in just one month’s time after extensive rehearsals.
  • Deleted scenes, including a bathroom confrontation and a tuberculosis saliva test switcheroo.
  • A segment where the real-life Burger lays out his concentration camp artifacts, including illustrations of his comrades, counterfeit postage stamps (even one to be used in Britain commemorating the Allies’ invasion of Nazi territory!), and photos he snapped after the prisoners gained control of the camp. Burger explains that he began the project of writing The Devil’s Workshop as a response to Neo-Nazis’ claims that Auschwitz never happened. At 90 years old, he still has a bit of fiery youth in him and a mission to set the record of history straight.
  • Interviews with Burger, Ruzowitzky, and Markovics, where they each affirm that The Counterfeiters is not an exact recalling of “Operation Bernhard” but a portrayal suited for cinema entertainment. The actor and director explain how the film was received better by audiences in England and the U.S. than in Germany and Austria — possibly because it dares to blur the lines of serious art and entertainment so strictly separated in those countries.
  • A ten-minute making-of documentary that breezes over the gist of the movie and includes a couple brief interviews with cast and crew.

HIGHLIGHTS


I enjoyed the distinct style of shooting and editing. In moments of devastation, the sound fades and the camerawork becomes shakier. To depict hostility, the camera makes a quick zoom in on an actor’s face, heightening the tension.

Editor Britta Nahler made use of some abrupt cuts that perfectly colored the free-and-easy nature of Sorowitsch’s pre-war life: one moment he’d be in a poker game, the next he’d spot a beautiful woman, the next she’d undress in his room.


LOWLIGHTS


It’s difficult if not impossible to pinpoint any flaws or directorial missteps. The characters are complex, and Burger and Sorowitsch’s ongoing debate is thought-provoking. This is no doubt a four-star film, one of the very best of 2007. I will, however, say that The Counterfeiters is not light entertainment. There is violence — often abrupt and shocking — and it is not stylized to make it palatable. Those moments, far from being weaknesses, are still difficult to sit through.


VERDICT


You should watch it, but probably by yourself, and definitely only when you’re in the mood for something serious. Needless to say, this is not first date or power hour material.


STATS
  • Won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 2008 and Best Supporting Actor at the German Film Awards
  • Nominated other awards at the German Film Awards, Berlin International Film Festival, Golden Trailer Awards, and Online Film Critics Society Awards
  • Rated 94% on RottenTomatoes
  • Running time: 98 minutes
  • Rated R

COMING TO A BLOG NEAR YOU

The Onion Movie. I’ve literally not heard anyone talk about this movie or read any reviews (maybe because it went straight to video?), but it always seems to be beckoning me to rent it when I pass it at Blockbuster, so I’ll bite.