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Movie Review: The Counterfeiters

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This evening I decided to see what Austrian filmmaker Stefan Ruzowitzky was up to in his 99-minute, Academy Award-winning (Best Foreign Language Film, 2007) film, The Counterfeiters (Die Fälscher).

This film is the fictional version of a true story based on Adolf Burger's autobiographical memoir, The Devil's Workshop. Although set in World War II, it is not just another death camp movie or another war movie. Rather it is a human film about an event that took place in one Nazi death camp during World War II — the largest counterfeit operation ever undertaken by a group of people. The Germans set up shop in 1936 determined to ruin both British and American economies by flooding the markets with counterfeit U.K. bank notes (pounds) and U.S. dollars.

The movie opens on the beach near Monaco/Monte Carlo and ends on its shore. Here on the playground of the rich and famous we find Salomon Sorowitsch, aka "Sallie" (played by Karl Markovics), a well-dressed gambler who shows up at the famous casino with a boatload of new money. This Russian Jew seems oblivious to the war while living it up in Berlin and the south of France. But his serenity come to an abrupt end when the SS arrest him in his hotel room. He goes directly to Malthausen concentration camp where he is well treated because he begins making drawings of German soldiers in a favorable light. The officers discover talent among them — an international counterfeiter. Talent they can use. Plans are made for his transport to another concentration camp — Sachsenhausen.

He begins to balk at the idea when we see the first glimmer of Nazi humor throughout the film — mocking the Jew for his survival instincts. Sachsenhausen will be the site of a huge Reich counterfeit undertaking that includes Jewish camp inmates and captive artisans who will print money to fund the war and ruin economies.

Other than the 1944 commencement of "Operation Bernhard," the camp is the "usual" Nazi  concentration camp with mass murder and starvation going on all around. At his new "home" Sallie is taken on tour of the Nazi counterfeit operations deep in the heart of the camp. He is amazed at the new digs and each bed with its pillow, linen, and mattress! He is told during the tour that his "job" will be head of quality control for the money-making, fake passports, and other document devilry. However, the first task is to perfect the British pound.

The story of how he and his crew go about perfecting the banknotes for the Third Reich and the verdict on their counterfeiting efforts is amazing. The second task is a bit more daunting — perfect the dollar. Spreading his homemade U.S. dollar is the reason he was captured by the Nazis in the first place. Ironically, it is the planned sabotage of the dollar by one of the counterfeiters that keeps the Germans from fulfilling their master plan.

The second half of the film engrosses itself in the Jewish dance around this issue of sabotage by one of their own. They now have two headaches: produce a perfect dollar under the threat of death if they do not succeed, while not betraying the saboteur. The Jews are not very creative when it comes to fooling their superiors. They use the same lie over and over again. The Nazi officers are not buying their lies and tell them so. Together the Jewish inmates must stand their ground and sometimes, literally, kick a comrade to the curb when things get tense. The survivor's guilt is a real thought enemy of the men caught in a situation of working on the same side as the Germans. They will survive while fellow Jews across Europe are gassed and burned. They will choose survival by helping themselves and The Reich make money using daring deception, photography, original documents, paper, cloth, and ink.

This is a solid and uncomplicated film. One oversight, however, is that the English subtitles are done in white instead of yellow and are often difficult to read. But my knowledge of French and German helped me to sort out some dialogue that was hard to read or got lost in translation. This film has been compared to Life Is Beautiful, but I liked The Counterfeiters better. While the camps in this movie are nothing compared to actual footage or other films that go for the gut when retelling the Holocaust tale, still I found the camps and their depiction in The Counterfeiters pretty believable without being sadistic or overly brutal.

This film is not long enough to dig deeply into the main characters. The supporting actors are good if not a bit downplayed, somewhat sacrificed to the story. There were few subplots or subtle nuances. Its rather straight-arrow approach misses the mark. This lack of ambition keeps the film from being perfect. The viewer is presented with a serious film that dotes on the wit and guile of the Nazis, more so than that of the Jews. That is not a major flaw but a critique. Overall, the story unfolds in chronological detail, and is a well-paced drama.

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