Counterfeiters, The (Germany/Austria, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Despite a title that makes it sound like a heist movie, The Counterfeiters is actually a World War II tale. It is not, however, a traditional war film. Instead, it takes a hard look at one of the most controversial and ethically dubious activities of the war: Jewish collaboration with the Nazis. Like Tim Blake Nelson's The Grey Zone, which explored the existences of the Sonderkommandos in Auschwitz, The Counterfeiters examines many of the same issues from a slightly different perspective. The bottom line is the same, however: Is it morally reprehensible to exchange services that help the Nazis in return for a less harsh life?

The Counterfeiters, from Austrian writer/director Stefan Ruzowitzky, tells the true story of the greatest counterfeiting operation in history, dubbed "Operation Bernhard." Beginning in 1942 and continuing until 1945, the Nazis set up shops in the cell blocks of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp to copy everything from identity papers to securities to cash (in particular, pounds and dollars). Their long-term plan was to supplement their military might with an influx of phony money into world markets that would cripple the economies of the United States and Great Britain. However, by the time the war had ended, very few counterfeit dollars existed. Among other things, The Counterfeiters explains why that was.

The movie opens with a brief scene in post-war Monte Carlo, then flashes back to the meat of the story. In the mid-1930s, Salomon Sorowitsch (veteran Austrian actor Karl Markovics), a Russian Jew, is the world's best counterfeiter. He operates out of Berlin but has received word that the police are on his trail. Alas for "Sally" (as he is called), he is tempted to linger by a beautiful woman and is captured by Freidrich Herzog (Devid Striesow). He is shipped to a labor camp where his artistic ability earns him perks in return for painting portraits. Later, Herzog, now a Nazi officer, recruits Sally to his counterfeiting crew. In return for developing perfect copies of the British pound and American dollar, Sally and his fellow workers are allowed soft beds, good meals, acceptable working conditions, and the chance for a longer life. Sally doesn't hesitate to grab the opportunity. However, one of his fellow prisoners, Adolf Burger (August Diehl), demurs. In his view, helping the Nazis is betraying the Jews, even if it is just counterfeiting money. In his opinion, they should sacrifice their lives before allowing their captors to benefit from the fruit of their labors.

Although The Counterfeiters is based on Burger's autobiography, it's more about Sally than Burger. Sally is the one caught in the crosshairs of a moral dilemma. Although his #1 goal in life has always been to look out for himself, he also has a conscience and a code of conduct, and his actions fall into an area of ambiguity about which he feels uncomfortable. Burger sees things as more black-and-white. The shades of gray in Sally's world view make him the more interesting individual.

From an historical perspective, the story is interesting because it shows a different side of the war than what we're used to observing in motion pictures. Ruzowitzky depicts the care and attention to detail that went into the operation. The result was a pound note so authentic that it passed inspection by the Bank of England (who pronounced it to be "not a forgery"). This represents the backdrop to the struggle of conscience endured by the main characters, and that's where The Counterfeiters' core strength lies. There is no pat resolution because, although the internment in the camp ends, the emotional scars remain. (That's what the bookend sequences illustrate.)

Counterfeiters, The (Germany/Austria, 2007)

Run Time: 1:40
U.S. Release Date: 2008-02-28
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: English subtitled German
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1