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Review: The Counterfeiters

(This review was originally published at Movie Make-out on February 20, 2008. The film is currently available for purchase from Amazon on disc and download, as well as for rent from Netflix.)

Directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky.
Starring Karl Markovics, August Diehl and Devid Striesow.

Unless you paid attention to the Best Foreign Language Feature Oscar nominations, you probably haven’t heard of The Counterfeiters; I hadn’t heard of it until then, myself, but after seeing the trailer (at Apple), I made sure to keep it on my radar. When I saw that the Gene Siskel Film Center had an advanced screening of it a couple of weeks back (at Landmark’s Century Centre), I leaped at the opportunity — and I was not disappointed.

The Counterfeiters is a tight, thrilling, true-life drama anchored its amazing lead, Karl Markovics, who plays Salomon Sorowitsch, a Polish Jew known as “The King of the Counterfeiters.” Arrested in the lead-up to WW2 and subsequently sent to a concentration camp, Sorowitsch survives on his artistic skills before being transferred to the Sachsenhausen camp. There, he learns the officer who arrested him is heading up “Operation Bernhard,” a Nazi plan to destabilize the British economy by flooding it with counterfeit pound notes — and they need his help to perfect their forgeries.

Sorowitsch and his fellow counterfeiters — comprised mainly of bankers, printers, and other artisans — are treated surprisingly well, compared to the other prisoners at the camp (from whom they are kept apart), which keeps The Counterfeiters from being quite as depressing as many Holocaust films, but they’re constantly reminded of the killings going on outside their isolated corner; certainly, the Nazis don’t think of them any different than the rest of the Jews and only treat them differently because their commanding officer, Sturmbannführer Herzog (Devid Striesow), orders them to — more because he recognizes that these artists need to be in good health to do their best work than because he thinks well of them.

The director, Stefan Ruzowitzky, occasionally goes out of his way not to paint the Jewish characters in black and white; some older Jews at the camp complain about a few others singing “that nigger music,” for instance. But he needn’t have bothered: Sorowitsch is hardly a picture of morality; the true moral “hero” of the story, if he can be called one, is a fellow named Adolf Burger (played by August Diehl), a collotype expert who singlehandedly — and against his fellow counterfeiters’ wishes — sabotages the plan to counterfeit the US dollar for months.

But this is not a story of heroes; it’s a story of survival. And it’s one hell of a story.

The Counterfeiters is rated R. It begins a limited release run stateside on February 22, 2008.