THE COUNTERFEITERS written and directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky, based on the book by Adolf Burger, with Karl Markovics, August Diehl, Devid Striesow and August Zirner. A Mongrel Media release. 99 minutes. Subtitled. Opens Friday (February 29). Rating: NNNN
In recent years, European cinema has seen a new wave of films – The Pianist, Downfall, Fateless, Black Book – that concern themselves with the nuts and bolts of the Second World War.
Rather than confront the Nazi era on a grand scale, these films pick it apart from within. The Counterfeiters – winner of last week’s Oscar for best foreign-language film – is the latest entry in this developing genre.
The film is based on the true story of Operation Bernhard, in which a group of inmates at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp were put to work forging British pounds and American dollars to prop up the Nazi war effort in the waning months of World War II.
With its emaciated Jewish protagonists and its gleaming fascist villains, Stefan Ruzowitzky’s drama positions itself firmly in the Holocaust-movie genre – and then refuses to be a Holocaust movie, keeping the horror of the camps at the absolute periphery of the action, beyond the edges of the relative comfort in which the title characters are kept.
We know what’s happening outside – and more importantly, so do master forger Salomon Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics) and his fellow inmates, who’ve been hand-picked for their skills at the orders of Himmler himself.
The operation's commander (Devid Striesow) doesn'’t need to beat or threaten them. All he has to do is remind them that they are Jews, and powerless to change their situation, and he is neither.
The dynamic grows somewhat more complicated when Sorowitsch’s own code of honour prevents him from giving up Communist agitator Adolf Burger (August Diehl), whose sabotage efforts endanger everyone’s safety.
Burger's position is that forging a perfect American dollar – they've already mastered the pound – will give the Nazis a war chest big enough to extend the war for months or years. This would make Sorowitsch’s operation responsible for who knows how many deaths, and is thus worth sacrificing their own lives to resist.
Sorowitsch, on the other hand, argues that the failure to deliver the dollar will get everyone killed, since the Germans will have no reason to keep them alive if they’re not producing counterfeit currency. (The screenplay was adapted from Burger’s memoir, but the movie doesn’t exactly favour his position.)
Ruzowitzky, who directed the passable Anatomy horror movies as well as the dreadful American service comedy All The Queen’s Men – that’s the one where Matt LeBlanc and Eddie Izzard infiltrate the Axis in drag – makes a real leap forward here as an artist, though that might simply be the result of having more potent subject matter to hand.
He borrows certain notes from Schindler’s List and The Pianist – there’s a little passive resistance here, a bit of artful dignity there – but for the most part, the director not only avoids the clichés of the Holocaust drama, but actively subverts them.
This is no musty, respectable drama; it’s an urgent, immediate thriller, shot hand-held and in low light to make the characters’ moral and ethical choices feel all the more relevant to a contemporary audience. Not that it needs to.
See also Norman Wilner's blow-by-blow commentary on the Oscars.