The Counterfeiters

The Counterfeiters


Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

If you think you are suffering from holocaust fatigue and cannot face another concentration camp reconstruction, take a moment to reconsider. At the centre of The Counterfeiters is a moral dilemma not a million miles from that facing Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) in The Bridge On The River Kwai.

Salomon Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics) is a diminutive, cynical, thin-lipped master forger, living the high life in pre-war Berlin, paying off the Nazis and bribing the police. Although blatantly Jewish, he is confident enough to believe that the storm-troopers’ persecution of his race won’t effect him because of his money and contacts in high places.

Copy picture

When finally he is arrested, you feel that it is his arrogant disregard of Hitler’s anti-Semitic policy, as if thumbing his nose at the Fuhrer, rather than sneaking about in the shadows, like filthy scum victim stereotypes should, that does him in. As well as being good at his craft, Sally is a survivor and Austrian director Stefan Ruzowitzky’s film, based on the memoir of Adolf Burger, celebrates this quality, while, at the same time, questioning how far means justify ends.

At first, in the Malthausen camp, Sally uses his artistic talent to gain special privileges by drawing flattering portraits of his captors. Later he is transferred to Sachsenhausen at the request of the commandant, the ex-Berlin chief of police who had originally arrested him. Himmler has a devilish plan to flood the market with counterfeit pound notes and dollar bills, thus destroying the enemy’s currencies.

Sally is chosen to lead a team of printers and artists to achieve this end. They are kept separate from the other prisoners, fed and housed decently and provided with the tools of the forger’s trade. Within the group, however, there is argument and dissent, especially from the Communist Burger (August Diehl), who attempts to sabotage the project because of its collaborative nature. Sally knows that their lives depend upon getting the job done and getting it done properly. They are valuable to Himmler only if they succeed and Sally is fully aware of this, while persistently playing for time.

The film is extraordinary on many levels. Markovics captures the contradictions, intelligence and complexity of Sally so accurately that he becomes, not a hero, but a man who wages his soul for the scent of Chanel on the skin of a beautiful woman in Monte Carlo. Despite being treated as human beings by the commandant, the men who work with Sally in the camp are constantly in danger. The tension and sense of death is like a physical barrier to sanity’s guiding hand. The arguments for and against completing the task, with all that that implies for Germany’s war effort, raises the stakes to a scarcely bearable level.

The rich texture of suffering and guilt carries until the end, and then beyond. To have been here, Sally seems to say, is to know that to have done your best for the honour of your profession and the safety of your comrades is tainted with the blood of millions.

Reviewed on: 28 Aug 2007
Share this with others on...
The Counterfeiters packshot
Surviving the holocaust by forgery.
Amazon link

Director: Stefan Ruzowitzky

Writer: Stefan Ruzowitzky, based on The Devil's Workshop by Adolf Burger

Starring: Karl Markovics, August Diehl, Devid Striesow, Martin Brambach, August Zirner, Veit Stübner, Sebastian Urzendowsky, Dolores Chaplin, Andreas Schmidt, Tilo Prückner, Lenn Kudrjawizki, Marie Bäumer

Year: 2007

Runtime: 98 minutes

Country: Austria/Germany


EIFF 2007

Search database:

If you like this, try:

The Lives Of Others
Torte Bluma