It must be something about the nature of things, but the “heroes” in movies about the Holocaust have been far from perfect. They’d even be villains in most other movies. Oskar Schindler was a drinker and a gambler driven by greed and lust for women. But, by the end of the war, he had risked his life and fortune to save a great many Jews.
In The Counterfeiters, Salomon ‘Sally’ Sorowitsch is all of those things. He is also a crook, a master counterfeiter. More than that, he didn’t risk anything to save anyone. To save his own life and the lives of a few other Jews necessary for him to do so, he assisted the Nazis in creating counterfeit British and U.S. banknotes. In his own little way, he probably prolonged the war.
The story of The Counterfeiters is true, like that of Schindler’s List. Sally and a few other men were selected by Nazi Germany to join “Project Bernhard.” The plan was to flood Britain and the United States with huge quantities of forged banknotes, bringing about economic collapse.
We meet Sally on the beaches and in the casinos of Monte Carlo. He’s a well-dressed high-roller. Then we flash back to late 1930s Germany where he beds a woman who asked him to forge an Argentinean passport. That’s how he is introduced to us, a man of questionable character. He even looks like a scoundrel behind actor Karl Markovic’s squinting eyes and snarl.
Catching Sally in bed is senior Nazi police officer Friedrich Herzog. He has appeared to arrest the “King of Forgers” and put him to work for the Nazi machine. He has also appeared to turn this topsy-turvy movie on its ear. Herzog is a Nazi and, oddly, the most sympathetic character in the movie. Played by Devid Striesow, he is also the most pleasant looking.
And herein we have the source of the movie’s fascination. There is an overwhelming sense of nobody being good and nobody being bad, just a lot of people doing whatever they have to do to survive an unimaginably horrible situation. Sally puts his skills to work in whatever way keeps him alive from one day to the next. He paints portraits of Nazi families. He forges passports. He resists fighting back even when a Nazi officer urinates on him.
Herzog protects Sally’s men and provides them with contraband and decent food, certainly all at great personal risk. He keeps the forgers forging ahead by giving them a gift of a ping-pong table. “Project Bernard” is considered essential to the war effort by the Nazi at a time when things are falling apart. Its success is as much a matter of life and death for Herzog as it is for Sally.
The Counterfeiters isn’t as dramatically satisfying or as ambitious as Schindler’s List, which remains the definitive movie about the Holocaust horrors. But it certainly deserves its place beside Spielberg’s masterpiece. Schindler’s List is ultimately a very black and white film. While it gives Schindler himself intriguing shades of gray, it overall paints its characters as very easy to like, or hate. The Counterfeiters has the courage to paint everything in grays. Everyone is, as Sally puts it, forced to “adapt or die.”
Our final glimpse of Sally is as fitting as our first. He kicks back on a Monte Carlo beach with a beautiful woman after flooding the casinos with counterfeit dollars smuggled away from “Project Bernard.”