Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Counterfeiters is a masterful wartime suspense thriller from Austria, based upon a book written by one of its characters. Condemned to one of Hitler's concentration camps, Adolf Burger was enlisted into a special Nazi project to ruin the Allied economy with counterfeit English and American currency. The last few years have brought us several excellent German language movies about 20th century history, including The Tunnel and The Lives of Others, which dealt with the Cold War years under communist tyranny. The Counterfeiters won 2007's Oscar for best foreign film.
Nightclub owner, moneylender, and master forger Salomon "Sally" Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics) feels he can ride out the Nazi regime but is arrested for attempting to counterfeit an American dollar. When the war starts Jewish criminals are given especially harsh treatment. Sally cleverly earns special consideration by using his artistic skill to paint portraits and posters for various Nazi officers. But he's suddenly relocated to a secret and unusually comfortable installation within a concentration camp, to lead a special counterfeiting unit organized by Sturmbannführer Friedrich Herzog (Devid Striesow). Other prisoners with printing skills tackle the problem of the British Pound and the American dollar, knowing that failure will mean certain death. Because the Nazis are desperate for fake currency to bolster their crumbling economy, Herzog allows Sally to run things the way he sees fit. He even puts up with prisoner-printers with problems, like a man with TB and another who lied about his printing experience. Captive Adolf Burger (August Diehl) is determined to sabotage the counterfeiting project, even if it costs him his life. Obeying the underworld rule of never informing, Sally refuses to turn Burger in. Herzog becomes suspicious and threatens executions; which prompts some of the other prisoners to turn against Burger.
The Counterfeiters is a dynamite concentration camp story about men forced to give crucial aid to the Nazi war effort. Regular prisoners are being mistreated and murdered all around, while the forgers have clean beds and showers. All are grateful for their present conditions but most realize that their captors will almost certainly kill them when their work is completed. One young prisoner breaks down, unable to believe that the showers are not there to gas him. An ex- bank clerk thinks that the Nazis will distinguish between honest men and crooks like Sally Sorowitsch, the "King of Counterfeiters." But Adolf Burger has the courage to stand up to Sally and refuse to turn out a useable printing plate for the U.S. dollar. With his wife murdered by the Nazis, he'd rather die making a "statement" than help the Nazis.
Sally Sorowitsch's philosophy couldn't be more different. To Sally survival is everything. He bows and defers to Herzog, knowing that he can hold out for things he wants and needs: if the plan fails Herzog will quite possibly be shot as well. Herzog's speeches emphasize positive motivation, and he installs a ping-pong table for recreation purposes. But behind every smile is the threat of death; just beyond the fence behind the ping-pong games, other prisoners are being beaten and shot. Herzog's main assistant Holst (Martin Brambach) terrorizes the printers at every opportunity. Sally walks a tightrope between cooperation and passive resistance. Previously dedicated to selfish ideals, he begins to take responsibility for his crew of forgers. Too much cooperation with Herzog may be the shortest route to a firing squad.
The unfamiliar German actors give remarkably controlled performances. Karl Markovics communicates the dilemma of a crook that must use all of his personal resources just to survive. Sally's repeated motto is that "one must adapt," and the suspense grows as that task becomes increasingly difficult. August Diehl is the crazy idealist Adolf Burger, who at first seems a loose cannon likely to get everyone shot. Only slowly do we realize that his purpose may make sense in the long run. Burger is more than a candidate for martyrdom; he knows what a perfectly placed altruistic sacrifice might mean to millions of potential Nazi victims.
Writer-director Stefan Ruzowitzsky handles his material with skill and judgment; the movie never seems exploitative. The moral problem of collaboration hasn't been expressed with such clarity since David Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai, over fifty years ago. If anything, The Counterfeiters is an improvement on the theme, as insanity doesn't enter into the equation. Sally Sorowitsch is a conniving crook pushed and goaded into a position of moral responsibility, and Ruzowitzsky makes his character a true original.
Ruzowitsky is also careful to insure that The Counterfeiters is not entirely confined to the drab concentration camp. A wraparound framing story shows Sally to be a smooth operator in the Berlin underworld, taking advantage of a shapely refugee who needs a fake passport. Another set of narrative bookends places a tuxedo'd Sally in Monte Carlo in vastly different circumstances -- dancing on the beach with a beautiful woman from the casino.
Finally, The Counterfeiters alleviates what might be a gloomy tale with a solid dose of Argentine tangos, music that Sally played back in his club. The beautiful music relates to the dreams of the artist-forgers in his crew, and Sally calms himself in the tiny printing compound by dancing an "air tango" with an invisible partner. One of the first tangos heard is Volver, the song used to great effect by Pedro Almodóvar a couple of years ago. Benedict Neuenfels' exacting cinematography occasionally blends nearly invisible CGI work to create a credible atmosphere of claustrophobia and barely suppressed panic.
Quite frankly, in this year dominated by comic books and graphic novels, the intense, intelligent The Counterfeiters is a breath of fresh air, a rare thriller that affects us on several levels.
Sony's Blu-ray of The Counterfeiters has an excellent transfer that reproduces all of the changing moods and textures of this carefully-filmed show. Uncompressed Dolby 5.1 tracks are available in German and French. The extras include a commentary with the director, a number of deleted scenes and a making-of featurette. The director appears in a Q&A session and is interviewed with actor Markovics and author Adolf Burger. A very special extra covers Adolf Burger's presentation of historical artifacts in a school setting, teaching younger generations about his experience as a concentration camp prisoner and a participant in the Germans' nefarious counterfeiting scheme.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Counterfeiters Blu-ray rates:
Supplements: commentary, interviews, featurette, deleted scenes, BD Live -enabled extras, presentation of 'historical artifacts.'
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 31, 2008
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson
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