In 1942, the Nazis culled together a motley crew of prisoners from Sachsenhausen and Auschwitz — men who were formerly artists, financiers, and counterfeiters — and secretly launched Operation Bernard, a mass-production scheme of forgery meant to undermine the British (and later, American) economy. Stefan Ruzowitsky’s film, The Counterfeiters, is a semi-fictional account of this enterprise and its human architecture.
Salomon “Solly” Sarowitsch (Karl Markovics), a Russian Jew and artist living in 1936 Berlin, earns his living as a proficient forger of currencies and passports. Solly is thoroughly unlikable even before the film parses him out — he’s an arrogant misanthrope, mewling phrases like “Why earn money by making art? Earning money by making money is much easier,” through a thin-lipped sneer. His life is, by definition, a series of falsehoods, and he constructs his own means and beds beautiful women without seemingly trying. But reality comes knocking, as it’s wont to do, and Solly’s charmed life is ended in the form of police inspector Herzog (David Striesow).
Busted, Solly is sent to the Mauthausen labor camp, where he likely would’ve ended up in a few years due to his heritage anyway. Having the dubious distinction of being a Jew and a career criminal, Solly should’ve been doomed, but even this situation he turns to his advantage. Impressing a guard with his drawing abilities, it isn’t long before Solly is living in comparative luxury, painting portraits for the prison staff and eating well. After five years of this, he’s mysteriously whisked to Sachsenhausen, where his old nemesis, Herzog, now an SS commandant, is heading the counterfeit project. Solly, due to reputation, is placed at the head of a disparate group of inmates who have experience in printing or finance. Herzog orders these men to reproduce the British pound; in exchange for the their skills, Solly’s crew lives in relative comfort - they have soft beds, decent meals, even a ping-pong table - a far cry from the horrors visited daily on the other inmates.
It would seem that Solly, amazingly enough, has again managed to spin gold from straw. He and the others have safety and comfort, under the circumstances, and, after successfully forging pound notes, the favor of Herzog. But one prisoner, Adolf Burger (August Diehl), threatens to derail the entire operation. Burger is an idealist and former political agitator who, along with his wife, fought the Nazis in print before being sent to Auschwitz. Burger finds it morally inexcusable to aid the Nazi war effort in any way; after increasingly strong protests, he actually begins sabotaging the process, ignoring the pleas of his fellows and incredulous to the doom he threatens them (and himself) with. Burger is Solly’s antithesis — he places ideals above his own survival; Solly places nothing above survival, willing to peddle obsequiousness and immorality if it means his neck is out of the noose. The world can burn.
But strangely, Solly finds he cannot turn on Burger, even when his actions place them all in dire straits; Herzog is now demanding the dollar, and doing so with increased ferocity. Solly has to juggle his own will to survive against Burger’s undeniably good intentions, and this makes The Counterfeiters pretty interesting. There’s impressive irony at play here: Solly finds it excusable to aid monsters if it means saving his skin (and the skins of those around him) while Burger is willing to kill himself and his fellows in service to morals which may not exist and the welfare of people he’s never met. And if Solly is right, shouldn’t that excuse Herzog, a cherub-cheeked evildoer who also claims he’s doing what he must, as well?
The problem is: Counterfeiters is a bit too interesting without enough of anything else. Ruzowitsky, who also co-wrote the script, crafts an engaging debate without giving enough life to the debaters. Solly is an intriguing character, even impressive, but, as a man who cares for little save himself, never sympathetic. The film is bookended with scenes of him gambling away the money he forged (and probably continues to forge) in Monte Carlo, so we know he’ll outlast the war. Ruzowitsky is less interested in his survival than what it cost him to survive. Perhaps if the film had given an equally balanced portrayal of Burger the dichotomy of these two characters would have been more compelling. As it stands, The Counterfeiters, with its notable production and fine acting, paints an interesting portrait, but never an enthralling one.
Phillip Stephens is the lead critic and book editor for Pajiba. He lives in Fayetteville, AR.
The Counterfeiters / Phillip Stephens
Film | February 28, 2008 | Comments ()