It’s a foregone conclusion that a film about the Holocaust can usually pick up an Oscar or two, but it would be unfair to dismiss this year’s foreign-language winner as having benefited solely from that bit of Academy-voter shorthand. While “The Counterfeiters” certainly was not the best foreign-language film of 2007, it does peer deeper into the complicated moral quandaries experienced by Hitler’s victims than most films on this topic do. It even manages to find a relatively fresh angle: What about the Jews who were not just imprisoned by the Nazis, but forced to help the Third Reich, too?
Based on a true story and adapted and directed by Austria’s Stefan Ruzowitzky, “The Counterfeiters” centers on a wily character named Salomon “Sally” Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics). Pre-war, he’s a con man, a forger, and an all-around rascal. “You know why the Jews are always persecuted?” he says. “Because they refuse to adapt!” That’s not a problem for a chameleon and like him, and while everyone around him in Berlin in 1936 starts to see the handwriting on the wall, he’s still living footloose and fancy-free.
He is finally arrested by an undercover agent, Herzog (Devid Striesow), and sent to a concentration camp. True to his motto, he finds a way to adapt by making his artistic skills known. Soon he’s in demand as a portraitist for vain Nazi officers and their families, and relatively well treated for his efforts.
Finally he’s transferred to a new camp where all the most talented prisoners have been put to work on a special project: The Nazis want them to create perfect counterfeits of British pounds and American dollars. Once they’ve developed convincing fakes, the Germans will introduce millions of them into England and America and destroy those countries’ economies. It is a dastardly plan, one that actually might work … and Sorowitsch is good enough to do it.
And so that is his dilemma. If he helps the Nazis make counterfeit money, he stays alive, yet he helps them win the war. (It’s chilling when Herzog tells him, almost chummily, “We’re on the same side now.”) Yet if he refuses, he dies, and the Nazis probably find someone to replace him anyway. Fellow prisoner and counterfeiter Adolf Burger (August Diehl), who would go on to write the memoir that the film is based on, is Sorowitsch’s conscience, and the two men argue about their plight constantly. Meanwhile, the counterfeiting operation is aided by a nervous doctor (August Zirner), a naive Russian art student named Kolya (Sebastian Urzendowsky), and other men with expertise in printing, paper-making, and so forth. One inexperienced man lied to the Nazis about his skills so they’d put him to work here instead of killing him, and Sorowitsch’s knack for fast-talking and fabricating keeps him alive. Adapt or die, right?
It’s impossible to say what’s right or wrong in a situation like this; one of the consequences of war is that it renders all the usual rules of civilized conduct null and void. Ruzowitzky’s straightforward style of filmmaking is best when he sticks to that aspect of the story. He tends to lay it on a little thick when he gets into the life-or-death dramatic moments like Kolya’s efforts to hide his tuberculosis from the Germans. That stuff is the territory of any generic war thriller, not nearly as fascinating as the counterfeiting operation and its related quandaries.
B (1 hr., 38 min.; German with subtitles; )