(Die Fälscher)

Directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky. 2007.

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Cooperating with the enemy has been explored in other holocaust films such as Kapo and The Grey Zone, but the struggle between survival and conscience has rarely been more clearly drawn than in The Counterfeiters, the Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film. Based on the memoir “The Devil’s Workshop” by Adolf Burger, one of the survivors of the program, The Counterfeiters is the story of Operation Bernhard, a little known World War II program engineered by the Nazis to use Jewish prisoners to subvert the currencies of the U.S. and the U.K through forgery. One of the biggest scams of the war, the counterfeiting operation printed over 130 million pounds sterling in its attempt to destabilize the allied cause and help the sinking German economy. 

Director Ruzowitsky lets us know immediately that counterfeiter Saloman Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics), known as Sally, has survived the war. A career criminal who has learned the law of survival, Sally has said, "Why earn money by making art”? “Earning money by making money is much easier.". With a brief case filled with bank notes, (authentic or otherwise), he is seen playing roulette at a swank Monte Carlo resort. Not given away by his pallid complexion and the deadness in his eyes, Sally’s history is revealed when a bar girl sees the concentration camp number on his arm. The film then flashes back to 1936 when the forger is arrested by Police Inspector Friederich Herzog (David Striesow) and sent to Mauthausen concentration camp where he must wear prison stripes with a green Star of David showing that he is both a Jew and a criminal. 

When the Nazis learn of his abilities as a forger, he is transferred to Sachsenhausen. Here, under the command of Herzog, now an SS-Sturmbannfuhrer, he is placed in an elite unit of imprisoned Jewish printers, photographers, and graphic artists to work on the top-secret campaign to print millions of counterfeit pounds and U.S. dollars. Given enough food to eat and a comfortable bed to sleep on, the work crew goes about their business while listening to the screams of other prisoners, who are forced to walk in pointless circles just beyond their wall of safety. Pressed by Herzog to produce the perfect American dollar, Sally is constantly subverted by the Communist printer Adolf Burger (August Diehl), whose wife has been shipped to another camp. Sally is called upon by Burger and others not to cooperate but resists, saying “We’re alive, that’s worth a hell of a lot”. 

Forced to deal with a psychopathic guard named Holst (Martin Brambach), however, and sympathetic to a Russian art student Kolya (Sebastian Urzendowsky) who has contacted tuberculosis, he is torn between his determination to stay alive and his knowledge that producing the perfect American dollar will affect the lives of his fellow workers as well as undermine the entire Allied cause. Ruzowitsky, to his credit, does not take a position on the internal debate, but gives the viewer enough leeway to question what they would have done in similar circumstances. The Counterfeiters is a fascinating and thought provoking film, yet perhaps because it lacks sympathetic characters or a neat resolution, it fails to provide the dramatic impact expected from such challenging material. Effective and accomplished are not words that stir the blood, yet they are the best way to describe this film. 


Howard Schumann
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