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  The Counterfeiters

Starring: Karl Markovics, August Diehl, Devid Striesow, Martin Brambach

Directed by: Stefan Ruzowitzsky

Produced by: Josef Aichholzer, Babette Shroder

Written by: Stefan Ruzowitzsky
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics


As seen at AFI Fest 2007:

    Stefan Ruzowitzsky’s The Counterfeiters is a beautifully layered drama. To call this a “historical reenactment” or a “World War II film” would be doing a grave disservice to the notable intellect and emotion behind the work. While The Counterfeiters may take place in a Nazi concentration camp, it bears little in common with the image that one typically associates with the setting. This is a film about the complex moral dilemmas of a group of individuals who were indeed oppressed by Hitler’s brutal regime, but not through mass genocide. Sure, the characters imprisoned in the picture are aware of the fact that the Nazis could kill them at any moment and that the group is actively massacring other people of their religious faith. But, for the most part, The Counterfeiters side-skirts the immediate threat of bloodshed in favor of shining a light on one of the more psychological ways in which Nazis destroyed innocent human lives.

     The film is based on a true story that took place during the mid-1930s in World War II-dominated Europe. Its protagonist is German Salomon “Sally” Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics) who, the viewer learns, was once considered the world’s greatest counterfeiter. Money, passports, identification cards, you name it – Sally and his team of experts could copy it. When the Nazis took him prisoner (he was Jewish), they realized that they could use Sally to execute a massive-scale counterfeiting plan. This plan came to be headed by Heinrich Himmler himself, and its main mission was to successfully create tamper-proof replicas of the British Pound and the American Dollar. The Nazis believed that, if they could manufacture enough of these currencies, they could flood the economies of Great Britain and the United States and thereby successfully take over the Western World. Sally was provided a massive team of other prisoners so that he was able to counterfeit the money and, as a gift for working on the project, he and his men were afforded many luxuries that most prisoners of concentration camps would never dream of.

     Despite the grand consequences of the characters’ actions in The Counterfeiters, the film’s content is handled with a stunningly restrained amount of intimacy. The movie’s central theme regards the morality of Sally and company’s actions. Is it right that they are helping the Nazis in order to save themselves from systematic execution and to live in conditions that will prevent them from becoming malnourished or diseased? One of Sally’s workers, Adolf Burger (August Diehl), does not believe so, and eventually jeopardizes the group’s safety by refusing to carry out his very-important role in the operation. (The film is actually based off of Burger’s autobiography, despite the fact that he is presented as a supporting character in it.)

      The aforementioned moral dilemma permeates through every scene in the picture. Viewers are able to see both sides of the issue, heartbreakingly realizing that these men shouldn’t have to make the decision that the Nazis have forced them to come to terms with. In this respect, The Counterfeiters is equally as effective as most serious, violent dramas about the Holocaust are, quietly sneaking up on the viewer in a manner that allows them to fully understand the solemn consequences of the Nazis’ injustices.

     The performances of Markovics and Diehl greatly aid in making the film the emotionally affecting work that it is. Both actors make sure to create characters who understand one another; Sally and Adolf are never meant to seem like rivals, just men who react to an extraordinary situation differently. Sally’s sense of responsibility for his established troupe, perfectly depicted by Markovics, makes him feel the need to continue the counterfeiting operation. Adolf, on the other hand, understands the greater context of the situation and believes that it would be selfish of him to do the same. Both actors are remarkably subtle in their approaches, but entirely brilliant in creating equally empathetic figures. A scene in the film’s final act (which I need not spoil) involving the counterfeiters’ reaction to a group of “real” concentration camp prisoners is particularly effective in showing the consequences of Sally and Adolf’s points of view. This scene is handled by Markovics and Diehl with a crowning degree of emotional authenticity.

     The Counterfeiters is entirely engrossing not only for its realistic depiction of actual events, but for its narrative unpredictability. Despite the considerable amount of historical content that it offers viewers, the film feels more like a work of cinema than a Social Studies lesson, thereby increasing its power as both. Viewers unfamiliar with the story (as I was) will find themselves on the edge of their seats as they watch the plot’s events unfold through cinematographer Benedict Neuenfels’ gritty, zooming lens. For both its enlightening telling of a little-known part of a devastating time in human history and its notable filmic richness, The Counterfeiters is a terrific motion picture.

-Danny Baldwin, Bucket Reviews

Review Published on: 12.1.2007

Screened on: 11.10.2007 at the ArcLight Hollywood in Hollywood, CA.


The Counterfeiters is rated R and runs 99 minutes.

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