Starring Karl Markovics, August Diehl, Devid Striesow
Directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky
In German with English subtitles
With his hooded eyes, long chin, and glum expression that’s like a craggier Humphrey Bogart, Salomon Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics) is an unlikely film hero.
More character actor than leading man material, what Markovics lacks in beauty he makes up for in interior dimension. From the moment he first appears onscreen sitting on the beach in a business suit, you long to know more about this hangdog man. Salomon skulks into a Monte Carlo casino carrying a suitcase full of money and only attracts the attention of a beautiful woman when he begins to score at the gambling tables.
Shot in tobacco-stained, amber tones, The Counterfeiters recalls the rich, regret-laced look of Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1970 The Conformist. Austrian director Stefan Ruzowitzky combines that vintage look with more contemporary hand-held camerawork like that favored by the Dogma 95 filmmakers. The Counterfeiters is a shockingly stylish affair drenched in both visual and literal nods to murky, complex history.
Because, we learn in flashback, Salomon has a history. And as that history unfolds, this year’s Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film begins to give dimension to this sullen man, who wears his demons very close to his chest.
Salomon used to be a different man, a savvy criminal in 1936 Berlin sure that the growing anti-Semitism — the pretty blonde who turned away upon learning he was Jewish, the cutting remarks — would not affect him. When he is arrested for running a counterfeit operation, Salomon lands in the Mauthausen concentration camp. His criminal past helps him. He regards the concentration camp the same way he would prison: as an unfortunate temporary circumstance to survive. When the Nazis discover his artistic skills, Salomon gets a reprieve, painting kitschy portraits of Nazi soldiers and their families. It means an escape from the work detail and better food. But Salomon’s life really improves when he is plucked from hell by the Nazi officer Friedrich Herzog (Devid Striesow), who arrested him for counterfeiting, and is sent to Sachsenhausen.
There, Salomon becomes the head of a secret, talented group of Jewish prisoners with printing, artistic, and financial skills who create counterfeit dollars and pounds for the Nazi war effort to weaken the Allied economies. It is one of the many ironies of the film that Salomon’s former life of crime is also his salvation: crime pays in The Counterfeiters. Based on the true story of history’s largest counterfeiting operation, Operation Berhard, The Counterfeiters revisits a strange chapter in world history.
While most seek only to live and survive the war, in their midst is a Communist, Adolf Burger (August Diehl), who sees their cooperation with the Nazi counterfeiting plan as virtual collaboration.
This battle between pragmatism and ideology composes the majority of Ruzowitzky’s interesting new wrinkle on the Holocaust story. And though the story line is fascinating, things grow relatively slack in the film’s middle passage.
Once the battle between survival and ideology has been established, Ruzowitzky often seems to be spinning his wheels. He gets mired in Salomon’s back-and-forth efforts to create the perfect fake dollar, and in Adolf’s efforts to sabotage the operation.
Holocaust films often emphasize the abjection and suffering of the concentration camps. And there are certainly aspects of this familiar tack in The Counterfeiters. Despite their value to the Nazis, the men are still swatted around and insulted by the more sadistic guards.
But one of the most interesting relationships in the film is the one between Salomon and his old pursuer, now the Nazi head of the counterfeiter unit, Herzog. Working from the prisoner Adolf Burger’s memoir, Ruzowitzky paints the Nazi officers as both sadistic anti-Semites and bumbling bureaucrats. Herzog is in the latter camp, a grinning, goofy company man merely trying to maximize the efficiency of the prisoners working for him.
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