“The Counterfeiters” – A.J. Hakari

I must confess to being a little afraid of World War II movies. Many great stories have been spun from this particular genre, but I’m always a little iffy on whether or not filmmakers might lose the humanity of their characters in depicting what a tragic time in world history the war was. Luckily, such is not the case with The Counterfeiters, an Austrian tale of the Holocaust that walked away with this year’s Oscar for best foreign film (although against fairly weak competition, if you ask me). In the tradition of pictures such as Life Is Beautiful and Schindler’s List, The Counterfeiters is all about survival, or, in this case, the conflict that results when one man’s drive to stay alive forces him to potentially sacrifice everything he knows he believes deep down inside.

In 1936 Berlin, Salomon “Sally” Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics) reigned supreme as the “King of the Counterfeiters,” a man seemingly without morals who has built his life on replicating everything from currency to identification papers. But in the midst of trying to recreate the American dollar, Sally is wrangled in by the long arm of the law and, because of his Jewish heritage, shipped off to an internment camp. Years down the road, however, his skills as an artist get noticed by some high-ranking Nazi officers, who transfer Sally to another camp to take place in “Operation Bernhard.” Alongside several other prisoners, Sally is assigned to help manufacture phony British pound notes, as a means of flooding England’s economy and helping turn the tide of the war in favor of the Germans. But as Sally gladly complies, set on doing whatever he can to stay alive, his actions are put at odds with those of Burger (August Diehl), a fellow inmate who refuses to help the Nazis and attempts to use his position to sabotage Operation Bernhard from the inside out.

“One adapts or dies,” says Sally at one point, a theme that recurs often throughout The Counterfeiters. The film’s strength, however, lies within to what lengths one will go to do so, how long a person can play by the rules of another’s sick game in order to live. Writer/director Stefan Ruzowitzky (Anatomy) presents a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario, in which the prisoners taking part in Operation Bernhard find themselves directly helping the Nazi war effort, but were they not doing so, they’d just be more victims of a hateful regime. But The Counterfeiters isn’t a film that assumes viewers can’t understand a message as basic as, “The Nazis were bad,” keeping the story down to earth by focusing on how Sally develops as a character. As the film begins, he’s as unscrupulous as you can get, ready and willing to play along with the Nazis if it means getting to sleep in a somewhat comfy bed (not to mention remaining breathing for a few more days). But the more Sally bows to the whim of his captors, the more he finds himself coming around to Burger’s way of thinking, that their shared fate is something that no amount of quick thinking and talent at forgery can evade.

The Counterfeiters never lets the setting grow bigger than the characters, thanks in part to Ruzowitzky’s downplayed direction but mostly due to the spot-on performance delivered by Markovics. He does a great job of handling the conflict Sally endures, of making it clear that he’s only lending his skills to the Nazis in order to survive, yet doing so has blinded him to the darkest horrors the Holocaust had to show. This path results in a more interesting and well-rounded character, as Sally remains a man whose ethics may lay on the shifty side but who remains fairly sympathetic for the duration of the picture. The same goes for Diehl’s turn as Burger, whose aspirations of turning the tables on the Nazis are honorable but end up endangering the lives of his fellow prisoners. The acting done by these two men is nothing short of superb, subtle but powerful performances that do a good job of balancing out the more hammy, one-note roles delivered by some of the supporting actors.

The Counterfeiters is a very good film, but it’s not a great one. The cinematography feels a little too grainy and washed-out, and there’s hardly a moment within the film that doesn’t feel predictable to some degree, be it the results of Operation Bernhard or the state in which Sally emerges from his experiences. But while last year saw more ideal foreign pictures to bless with that coveted golden statue (Persepolis springs to mind), The Counterfeiters remains a film of quiet power, proving that filmmakers don’t need to go epic when it comes to creating a stirring and effective Holocaust tale.

Rating: ★★★☆

-A.J. Hakari

Read more of A.J.’s reviews at ReelTalk Movie Reviews, Classic Movie Guide, and Terror Tube.

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