May 8, 2008


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The Counterfeiters (R)
A con man arrested by the Nazis for making fake money winds up in a concentration camp where he must make pounds and dollars to help pay for the war effort in The Counterfeiters, the Oscar winner for foreign language film.

Salomon “Sally” Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics) gets by in 1930s Germany through various illegal enterprises including counterfeiting (money, papers, you name it). He’s trying to crack the difficult-to-successfully-counterfeit American dollar when he’s arrested by the Nazis and thrown into a concentration camp. A few years later (and that he survives that long seems a miracle in itself), he is picked to work in a special unit. His “coworkers” are men with expertise in banking, print making, photography and other forms of graphic and financial arts. But as a counterfeiter, Sally is particularly well suited for his task — to create passable British pounds and American dollars. The goal of the project, as the head Nazi Friedrich Herzog (Devid Striesow) explains, is to devalue those countries’ currencies and, as other prisoners suspect, to help pay for the now-failing German war machine.

The men are hardly delighted at working for the Nazis but this labor does give them better living accommodations (regular meals, bunks with linens instead of the wooden hay-filled shelves other prisoners sleep on, clothes, occasional cigarettes, Sundays off) and so the men try to walk the uneasy line between doing what their captors ask and not being too helpful. Some men, in particular Adolf Burger (August Diehl), who was pulled for this task from Auschwitz (where his wife remained), want not only to survive but seek ways to thwart the Nazis’ plans.

The Counterfeiters is a very strange, wonderfully unexpected movie. It does not make Great Escape-type heroes of its subjects; instead, it makes you feel angst for the constant fear and uncertainty in which they lived. You understand how ideas of betrayal and “doing what’s right” become hopelessly confusing when the only reason you haven’t been killed is that your tormentors want you to suffer. The movie finds its most dramatic and poignant moments not in big, score-accompanied plot points but in small things that happen off to the side or even off camera — the counterfeiters hear a man get shot from behind a wall; we see a man in shock, barely prevented from killing himself after finding the passports of his children in a box of official papers sent to the forgers for study from the victims of Auschwitz. The actors turn these small moments into little windows into their personalities. While the movie gives us the situation from Sally’s perspective (Markovics is great as a man whose criminal past makes altruism a not-completely-natural motivation), we get pieces of the story from all the men, many of these bits telegraphed only through a look or a response to an action.

This is not a movie that tries to find some ray of hope in the madness of the camps. This movie holds the unvarnished awfulness of the situation up for you to see, without sentiment, without letting you look away and, through this new, quieter slice of the history, makes the horror of the Nazis’ crimes all the more fresh and terrifying. B+

Rated R for some strong violence, brief sexuality/nudity and language. Directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky and written by Adolf Burger and Ruzowitzky, The Counterfeiters (known in German as Die Falscher) is an hour and 39 minutes long and is distributed in limited release by Sony Pictures Classics. The film, which is in German with English subtitles, is scheduled to open soon at Wilton Town Hall Theatre and Red River Theatres.