Winner of this past year’s Best Foreign Film Oscar from Austria, The Counterfeiters couldn’t be more deserving, and contrary to its title, is unequivocally the genuine thing. Unlike any of the procession of Holocaust themed movies to date, The Counterfeiters, a true story of a concentration camp ordeal based on the autobiographical account, The Devil’s Workshop by survivor Adolf Burger, posits a troubling moral dilemma any one of us could relate to. That is, to what extent would you radically alter your existence, defy authority and even risk personal harm, if you knew the life you live, the work you do and the prosperity you help generate for your country, is causing suffering or death to other human beings.
Burger’s own character figures in this astonishing drama, but he steps aside to give center stage to a fellow Jewish inmate at Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. Salomon (Karl Markovics) is a notorious master counterfeiter and bon vivant in 1936 Berlin. Arrested for plying his trade by the local police inspector, Herzog (David Striesow) who is oddly impressed by Salomon’s illegal exploits, he is subsequently sent off to a concentration camp. There he once again encounters Herzog, who is now the commanding officer at the camp, unaware that the relatively kindly but devious Nazi has been hatching a scheme involving the prisoner.
Meanwhile, Salomon has been utilizing his own criminal street smarts and artistic talents to great effect, to ingratiate himself to the guards and win favors. And Salomon succeeds by offering his drawings skills to sketch their portraits, graduating to painting patriotic murals for them on the prison walls. One day, he’s suddenly transported without explanation to another camp. There Salomon finds himself in the company of similarly skilled Jewish artisans, who have been gathered together as part of Operation Bernhard, the Reich’s plan to mass produce fake British pounds and US dollars in order to flood the world market and destroy the economies of their enemies.
But Salomon is relieved just to survive, as are most of his assembled printing team, and proceeds to diligently do the government’s bidding under the direction of Herzog, despite the sounds of torture and mass murder just beyond the walls of their relatively comfortable quarters. And along with the inevitability of their own extermination once they complete their required tasks. The workers engage in this bizarre routine in deep denial. That is, until the printer Burger (August Diehl), an impulsive young idealist and communist, persistently reminds Salomon that his culpability in alliance with the Reich is helping to perpetuate and enrich that murderous regime currently engaging in genocide against his own people.
The heated allegorical clash that ensues between these two men – a criminal and a communist – is rich in layered ideological dimensions. And, as it pits the urge for personal survival despite one’s debasement, against loftier but death-defying human instincts of defiance, collective rebellion and potential martyrdom – the very impulses that advance history and civilization, but at enormous cost.
For director Stefan Ruzowitzky (All The Queen’s Men) and these extraordinary actors, there is never a false note, easy answer or sentimental, pat resolution. And like a lingering, dreaded nightmare, this visually haunting, devastating, uncompromising and remarkably revealing film cannot be easily forgotten.
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
DVD Features: Commentary with Director Stefan Ruzowitzky; Featurettes: Making of The Counterfeiters; Adolf Burger Artifacts; Q&A With Stefan Ruzowitzky; Interview With Stefan Ruzowitzky; Interview With Counterfeiter and Real Life Holocaust Survivor,Adolf Burger; Interview With Actor Karl Markovics; Deleted Scenes; Rehearsal Footage.