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One of the most interesting stories to come out of World War II is that of Operation Bernhard. Considered the biggest counterfeiting scheme in history, it involved a secret plot by the Nazis to flood England and the United States with enough forged currency that their respective economies would be significantly weakened. Obviously the plan failed, though by the end of the War the Germans, employing the forced labor of select concentration camp prisoners with applicable skills, had produced more than 130 million in fake notes, a minor amount of which managed to make their way into circulation.
This incredible story provides the backdrop for Stefan Ruzowitzky's The Counterfeiters, an Austrian film nominated for this year's foreign-language Academy Award. Like most movies based on a true story, though, this one is hardly 100% historically accurate and therefore isn't so much about the facts of the Operation as it is about themes of morality and "survivor's guilt" as they relate to the Holocaust. And as usual, some of the names and details have been changed to protect the sanctity of narrative complacency.
The source material for the film is "The Devil's Workshop", a book by Adolph Burger, who was one of the prisoner members of the counterfeiting ring at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. However, despite the fact that Burger may have in fact been the hero of his story and, as a determined saboteur, was even apparently the leading cause of the Operation's failure, The Counterfeiters treats him as a supporting character. Instead of on him, the film focuses on a different sort of protagonist by following the path of Salomon "Sally" Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics), a fictionalization of a real man credited as being the "King of Counterfeiters."
For us, Sally's story begins in 1936, immediately prior to his arrest. As he works on a passport forgery for a beautiful client, the woman walks about his studio admiring some drawings he's done. She asks why he doesn't simply work as a fine artist, and he replies, "I'd rather make money by making money." It's the first of many such statements made by Sally over the course of the next half hour, as the character is set up as a cool yet morally questionable crook. Other defining lines include "there's me and then there's others" and "adapt or die," both defensive responses regarding his apparent indifference to the Nuremberg Laws and overall apathy towards the Nazi regime -- even after his imprisonment.
At first, Sally is shipped off to the Mauthausen camp, in Austria, where he's primarily recognized as a professional criminal -- his badge consists of a green triangle above a yellow triangle (forming the Star of David), signifying that he is first a convict, who is also Jewish. While there he manages his first adaptation by drawing the guards' portrait in trade for better food and cushier treatment. Eventually he's transferred to Sachsenhausen, outside Berlin, where he meets Burger (August Diehl), straight from Auschwitz, and others who will make up his team of forgers and printers. Also, along with the other Jews working on Operation Bernhard, he's given relatively comfortable accommodations in a section of the camp called the "Golden Cage."
Soon, the debates arise regarding the morality of accepting finer conditions than their fellow Jews and of course the unforgivable sin of aiding the Nazi war effort, regardless of whether or not they're being forced to do so. Sally and Burger end up clashing when the latter begins corrupting the printing process and prolonging the team's ability to successfully produce the dollar. Yet Sally cannot bring himself to rat out his teammate, because it turns out he does at least believe in some code of honor.
Such complicated ethics make for tense and riveting drama, and with his rat-like appearance Markovics is terrific as a personification of survivalist apathy. But The Counterfeiters is not quite a great film. It is, however, close enough to being great that it's appropriately flawed, like a near-perfect forgery. The main problem with the film is its rough edges, courtesy of Ruzowitzky's too-conventional plot structure, which feels rather forced. Despite having no historical basis for doing so, the filmmaker decided to add on an unnecessary and dull book-ending sequence involving a post-War trip to Monte Carlo. This epilogue works narratively for Sally's character arc, but the film would be much more genuine and thought provoking without it. After all, why not appropriately have an ambiguous ending for a story about moral ambiguity?
At least the cinematography is appropriate. The film is grainy and void of deep contrast, giving The Counterfeiters a look that matches its themes, its characters and its fuzzy depiction of the history. Of course, ultimately the film does have a clearly defined moral stance. It doesn't allow for too much humanization of and/or sympathizing with its Nazi characters, at least compared to some other recent films, nor does it necessarily permit any of its Jewish characters to come off negatively in the end. For that it avoids controversy, maintains tradition and conclusively exists as a good (not quite great) yet unexceptional work.
Much has been written about lately on the supposed injustice of this year's foreign-language Oscar race, with specific address given towards the lesser quality of the nominees in comparison to acclaimed films that didn't make the cut. I saw The Counterfeiters the day after the Academy Award nominations were announced and admit to having some trouble being objective. Questions that seeped into my head during the screening included, "is this as good as the not-nominated foreign films I saw last year?" and, "was this only nominated because of the Oscar tradition of honoring any Holocaust-related film?"
I also thought a lot about past winners, those memorable and classic foreign films of the last sixty years that The Counterfeiters would be weighed against if it were to win. My immense disdain for the 2006 winner, Tsotsi, also could not escape my thoughts. And despite the annoyance that is Oscar's cultural dominance, which makes it so difficult to ignore such unfair subjectivity, I am not apologetic. Still, the answers to those questions I asked myself are not of any worth to you, nor is my opinion of where The Counterfeiters places in relation to older films. I only mention all this because my perspective could easily be called into question. I have to believe, though, that my consideration of the film as being merely good would still stand if it weren't nominated for an Academy Award.
Read Kim's take, reviewed from Telluride, here.