The true story of a Nazi plot to employ a cadre of Jewish concentration camp prisoners to produce reams of counterfeit British pounds and dollars in order to undermine the Allies’ economies (and fund the German war effort is the basis for Stefan Ruzowitzky’s cunningly manipulative drama, which won this year’s foreign film Oscar. “The Counterfeiters” is an interesting and well-crafted picture, if also—especially in its second half—an increasingly unsubtle one. But it survives its melodramatic excesses because of the inherent fascination of its subject and an outstanding lead performance.
Karl Markovics, looking with his craggy face rather like a younger, shorter version of Max Von Sydow, stars as Salomon Sorowitsch, a master counterfeiter arrested by a police inspector named Herzog (David Striesow) in 1936 Berlin and sent to the Mauthausen camp, where he uses his skill as an artist to con the officers and not only survive but thrive for five years. In 1941, however, he’s transferred to Sachsenhausen, where he finds Herzog presiding over the privileged group of inmates assigned to use their talents to design and produce first fake pounds and then dollars. And self-serving, pragmatic survivor that he is (as well as a man proud of his own abilities), he becomes a willing participator in the smugly amoral Herzog’s efforts.
Of course, even in these early days Markovics shows signs of sympathy for his fellows—especially a younger Russian art student he meets in the cattle car on the way to Sachsenhausen, towards whom he develops a paternal, or at least avuncular, attitude. Yet for most of the first half of “The Counterfeiters” is remains pretty much the consummate trimmer, a cynic dismissing any principled stand against the Nazi war effort even when the atrocities occurring across the walls that separate the privileged prisoners from the rest of the camp are patently obvious.
Of course, ultimately his attitude shifts to something more committed, and it’s here that, curiously, he grows less interesting as a character, particularly because he’s contrasted with fellow inmate Adolf Burger (August Diehl), a socialist ideologue who tries, through quiet sabotage, to hinder the counterfeiting program as long as possible as a means of undermining the German capacity to wage war. Burger is, quite frankly, a single-note character, an unblemished idealist whose challenges help to convert Markovics to righteous opposition. This may in fact be a truthful representation of what actually happened, but the fact that the script is based on the real Burger’s memoirs makes one wonder whether the flattering light in which he’s portrayed isn’t a mite suspicious. And the turn, in any event, leads Ruzowitzky’s film into more clear-cut, less morally ambiguous territory in its second half.
Nevertheless Markovics’ performance, and that of Striesow as the smoothly malevolent Herzog, are more than enough to keep “The Counterfeiters” suspenseful and chilling even to the final reel, and the supporting performances are generally on target, even if Diehl can sometimes come across as simply petulant. The bookending footage from after the war, set in the casinos of Monte Carlo, interferes somewhat with the narrative economy, and the jerky hand-held camerawork can get annoying at times, but generally the gritty style and straightforward approach maintain the essential potency of a story that puts a new, and intriguing, spin on Holocaust drama.