The Counterfeiters (***)
Stefan Ruzowitzky’s The Counterfeiters—which won the best foreign language film Oscar last Sunday—aims to be a Holocaust movie with a difference. It doesn’t succeed in doing this, despite its focus on a rapscallion who seems almost immune to suffering. The sky is always grey, for instance, and there is a manipulative gas-or-water communal shower scene.
Yet The Counterfeiters is compelling by virtue of its premise alone. Its anti-hero, Salomon Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics), is based on forger Salomon Smolianoff, a key figure in Operation Bernhard, a German plan which had a select number of prisoners at Sachsenhausen concentration camp working on producing foolproof counterfeit versions of the British pound and U.S. dollar. The Counterfeiters pits Sorowitsch against Adolph Burger (August Diehl), the real-life author of a memoir about Operation Bernhard upon which the plot is based. The film’s leftist idealist, Burger is everything Sorowitsch is not, and in effect proves to be his enemy. Sorowitsch prefers to go ahead with Nazi orders and thus be well fed and sleep on a soft, clean mattress; Burger would rather die, and have everyone else in the operation die with him, than help the Nazis to victory.
The Counterfeiters is not to be taken as unadulterated history. It may tell of something of great importance that actually happened, and may also employ obnoxious vérité frame wobbling, but it is more interested in the broad, conceptual consequences of the situation. Its core message is blatantly and successfully conveyed: self-interest and duplicity—qualities that, ironically, the Nazis vilified Jews for having in their blood—define behaviour in crisis situations as much as (if not more than) generosity. It’s not a novel idea, but Ruzowitzky handles it with conviction and a surprising lack of cynicism.
The Counterfeiters is now playing at the Sheppard Grande (4861 Yonge St.).