Background: In a year of foreign films that included the universally lauded but all-unnominated 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days (Romania), Persepolis (France), The Diving Bell & The Butterfly (France), and El Orfanato (Spain), it was The Counterfeiters from Austria that rose to the top and captured the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky and starring Karl Markovics and August Diehl, the film is based on a memoir written by Adolf Burger, one of the central participants in "Operation Bernhard" - the greatest counterfeiting scheme in history. Burger's character, played by Diehl, is in fact the only authentic representation from the original story. The Counterfeiters was filmed in Austria, Germany, and Monte Carlo, and features a disturbingly effective score by my favorite and yours - Argentinean harmonica player Hugo Díaz.
Synopsis: In 1936 Berlin, Salomon Sorowitsch (Markovics) is a gambling playboy, a shady jerk, and one of the world's best counterfeiters of foreign currency and identification. When he is arrested by rising SS officer Friedrich Herzog, he is sent to a labor camp as a "habitual" criminal. By the time the war begins he has proven his artistic talent, and soon he is transferred to Sachsenhausen concentration camp (just outside of Berlin, and the first camp in Germany), now coincidentally under the direction of Herzog. The Nazis are a conniving group, and they select a number of skilled prisoners to carry out Operation Bernhard, a plot to bankrupt the Brits and Americans by flooding their economies with counterfeit pounds and dollars. In exchange for their expertise, the prisoners are separated from the rest of the camp and given some special privileges. Sorowitsch is unique among the group in that he is actually a criminal and not just a political prisoner, and partly because of that he is pegged as the chief supervisor of the operation. The work is set into motion and the batch of pounds is made so well that the Bank of England verifies their authenticity. The next challenge is the dollar, but it cannot be completed without the specialized gelatin-setting skill of August Burger (Diehl), a prisoner who was initially sent to Auschwitz with his wife for distributing anti-Nazi propaganda. Burger is a stubborn ideologue, and he refuses to finish the dollar, knowing that it will put all of their lives in danger - but that it will also ultimately bankrupt the Nazis. Tensions rise among the prisoners, nowhere more flammable than between Burger and Sorowitsch, who is convinced that their best hope to stay alive is to continue the work. There are a number of supporting characters that add life to the story, but the soul of the film is in this philosophical battle between Sorowitsch and Burger. We know that Sorowitsch makes it out because we've already seen a flashback of his post-war trip to Monte Carlo, but it's clear that ultimately, he did not learn how to survive so much as he learned how to live.
+ The hand-held camera that added a sense of grainy, chaotic realism to the scenes.
+ The performance of the square-jawed Karl Markovics, who looks like a cartoon or comic-strip character. Brilliant job of navigating the massive range his role required.
+ The supporting cast led by August Diehl, who looks annoyingly familiar. I just can't place him, and I haven't seen any of his other films.
+ The subdued musical score - not too distracting but present enough to haunt the scenes. Reminded me a little of Jonny Greenwood's score in There Will Be Blood.
+ The use of flashbacks to juxtapose the Salomon Sorowitsch of the past, the way past, and the present.
- The somewhat thrown-together ending in the present. Of course there needed to be a wrap back to the beginning, but I felt rushed through it.
- The point blank gun shots to the head, as you guessed.
- The frequent realization in my mind of how "true" the story was portrayed, regardless of whether or not it was a fictionalized version of it. How could humanity have sunk to such depths? And it continues...
Writing - 9
Acting - 10
Production - 8
Emotional Impact - 9
Music - 5
Significance - 5
Total: 46/50= 92% = A-
Last Word: While it will most certainly tell you a new story, The Counterfeiters won't really take you to a new place. By 2008 we're all hopefully aware of the horrors of the Holocaust, and it should have been no surprise to learn of even more insidious Nazi methods of exploitation and corruption. But the story isn't really about the Holocaust or the concentration camps, and it's certainly not about currency counterfeiting. Rather, the unique strength of the film is that it simply outlines the transformation of one man - and he's not the kind of angelic character we all expect. He has no family and no one he loves, not even any friends. Sorowitsch is a criminal who, incredibly, is "rehabilitated" by his experience in the concentration camps. That may sound odd, but I would argue that the man who left was a better person than the one who entered. Indeed, The Counterfeiters does better than most of its counterparts because it doesn't portray the characters as victims. We may not know their life story, but we know that they share many traits, strengths, and weaknesses with each other and with us. Certainly most of us have never dealt with such life-and-death decisions in our lives, but we can all relate to the literally insane choice that these characters face. Adapt and survive, or uncompromisingly fight? It's an aspect of the Holocaust that we haven't seen fully explored, and The Counterfeiters proves that there are certainly rich, relevant lessons yet to be learned from it.