"The Counterfeiters" received the latest Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film under problematic circumstances - long story short: the recent batch of questionable nominees, plus snubs of more notable favorites, revealed an embarrassingly broken nomination system; the resulting brouhaha shamed the Academy into changing several of its rules regarding the category - yet this should not detract from what is in fact a powerful movie. Any comments on why this title won the Oscar when more popular favorites couldn't even land a nod should be secondary. When removed from Academy Award debate, "The Counterfeiters" stands as a strong, rich dramatic experience.
Adapted from the memoirs and research of Adolf Burger, "The Counterfeiters" ("Die Fälscher") reveals a new side to the Holocaust: the Nazis as petty crooks. Throughout the Second World War, the Nazis schemed to flood other nations' economies with counterfeit cash, and they turned to career criminals and talented prisoners to do their dirty work for them. These Jews, working out of concentration camps, falsified millions of British pound notes and would later turn their attention to the American hundred dollar bill. (Stalling tactics and bad timing left this portion of the scheme a failure.) "Operation Bernhard," as it was called, produced what are considered the finest counterfeits to ever find their way into circulation; the prisoners would also falsify passports, documents, stamps, and whatever else the SS demanded.
It's a fascinating story, all true, and just think of what these stories of money laundering and criminal behavior mean for the Nazis. They may have fancied themselves world dominators, but they were really cheap hoods, desperate for cash. The counterfeit pounds helped fund their war machine because they couldn't do it themselves. Adolf Hitler: bankrupt thug.
What "The Counterfeiters" does, however, is refuse to tell this story in simple black-and-white, right-and-wrong format. The screenplay, by Stefan Ruzowitzky (he also directed, a far cry from his "Anatomy" horror films), shifts Burger to a secondary role. In the lead, we have Salomon Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics, giving an astounding performance), a loosely fictionalized anti-hero based in part on real-life counterfeiter Salomon Smolianoff. In Ruzowitzky's script, Sorowitsch is eager to stay alive, even if it means assisting the Nazis. Best not to rock the boat, especially once the Germans begin treating the prisoners a little more nicely. Better food, nicer clothing, a pinch of freedom - these things go a long way in keeping Sorowitsch in line. And when Burger (August Diehl) strains to convince his fellow prisoners to fight back, Sorowitsch gives a self-serving response: fight back and die, do your slave labor and live.
Ruzowitzky enjoys challenging the viewer with such ethical dilemmas. We all want to believe we'd do the right thing and fight against impossible evil, no matter the cost, but when death becomes a reality, can we stick with such ideals? Would we help the devil if it meant a respite from pain? Does the fear of death overwhelm us so greatly?
It does. In one scene, a prisoner becomes convinced he's being taken to the gas chamber. When water, not gas, sprays down, the young man is relieved - but also emotionally broken. In his mind, he was taken to the edge of death, and his cowardice was revealed to all around him. (Later, when a German officer is held at gunpoint by a prisoner, the inmate laughs when the Nazi wets his pants. The men who dealt so casually in death now face it themselves, and find themselves equally broken.) This is the picture of the Holocaust the movie paints: death everywhere, inescapable, and until it strikes you, the fear is immeasurable.
The script includes another layer still. While early scenes reveal Sorowitsch to be a schemer, eager to do anything to remain not just alive, but comfortable, the counterfeiting scenes show a man possessed. To Sorowitsch, it's not just about providing the Nazis with their fake war money, it's about mastering his life's work. Faking the American dollar was always out of reach for him, yet here, in this camp, the has the funds, the equipment, and the manpower to finally break that barrier. Sorowitsch wants to prove something to himself, and his ambition blinds him.
Throughout all this, we get the expected concentration camp drama (beatings, sickness, and murder surround the small doses of humanity that shine through), which dampens any sense of "fun" the caper-like counterfeiting scenes may have otherwise provided. Some of these scenes come off as a bit too rote, straight out of the Holocaust movie playbook (yes, even concentration camp movies have their own clichés, and this movie uses most of them), and the bookend sequences showing an older Sorowitsch seem ill-fitting in their attempts to explore the regrets that come with such problematic decisions.
Yet Ruzowitzky's delicate study of ethical grey areas makes "The Counterfeiters" a biting slice of drama, asking far more questions than it ever dare answer. More than merely a review of a forgotten chapter of the war, and more than just a mere biopic, Ruzowitzky's film is a bold study of unbearable moral ambiguity.
Video & Audio
There's grain everywhere in this anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) transfer, most distracting in nighttime and other darkly lit scenes. Colors are also quite muted, with all those greys and hazy blues. Apparently, this was shot on 16mm film and blown up to 35mm, hence the ragged, grainy look. (Would I be wrong in assuming these rough visuals were intentional?) It all adds to the downbeat tone of the piece, and there are no digital issues clogging up the proceedings, so I'll give all that grain a pass.
The original German soundtrack gets a low-key Dolby 5.1 mix. There's minimal use of the surround speakers (not much need for them, really), and dialogue comes through quite cleanly. A decent French dub (also in 5.1) is included, as are optional English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
Ruzowitzky provides a detailed yet often rough commentary track. He speaks in English, and he has a fine handle on the language - but he also stumbles with enough pauses and "ums" and "ers" to make the track a bit hard on the ears. An English subtitle track is included for this commentary, removing most of the verbal stumbles, and that might be your better choice.
"The Making of The Counterfeiters" (10:01) is a fluff piece that seems to have been made to promote the film in Austria - a European EPK, if you will. You get your typical film clips and behind-the-scenes interviews, although things perk up once Adolf Burger shows up to explain the story's history. (Presented in 1.33:1 full frame, with film clips properly letterboxed. In German, with non-removable English subtitles.)
Three prepackaged interviews - with Ruzowitzky (17:57, English, with optional English subtitles), Burger (9:55, German, non-removable subs), and Markovics (10:22, English, optional subs) seem like more EPK-style fluff, although there's a little more meat to the discussions to make them work. Again, the Burger stuff is exceptional, with plenty of detail into his counterfeiting past. His solution to how he can spot a flawless fake is brilliantly simple. (All three: 1.78:1 anamorphic.)
"Adolf Burger's Artifacts" (19:12, German, non-removable subs) goes into even greater detail still on the subject's wartime history. Burger lectures on this regularly, so his rundown is smooth and well rehearsed; here he shares the visual supplements he displays during his talks. Fascinating stuff. (1.78:1 anamorphic.)
"Q&A with Stefan Ruzowitzky" (13:15, English, optional subs) is home video footage of the film's screening at the AFI Fest in September 2007. Despite the occasional redundancy of information, there's some quality insight offered here. (1.33:1 full frame.)
Four deleted scenes (3:55 total, German, non-removable subs) show a bit more character development, but nothing crucial to the final story. (1.85:1 flat letterbox.)
The film's American trailer (2:09) and a batch of previews for other Sony titles round out the set; some of the extra previews also play as the disc loads.
Whether or not it deserved the Oscar, "The Counterfeiters" at least deserves to be seen. It's a tough, bitter drama full of complex questions. The exceptional supplemental materials seal the deal. Highly Recommended.