Stories drawn from the Holocaust are difficult to tell, and very few are willing to brave fictionalised accounts, preferring to document the real and defensible. The Counterfeiters follows this formula, balancing a gripping and watchable story against the need to treat the sensitive subject matter with caution and restraint.
The story follows master-forger Salomon Sorowitsch, who along with accomplice Adolf Burger, finds himself interned in Sachsenhausen concentration camp and set to work forging foreign currency for the Nazis. To their surprise, they are well treated; given warm clothing, enough food and weekends off. Salomon is pragmatic, determined to look after himself and his mates. Shutting out the sounds of the camp all around, he gets to work, with great success.
But as the scale of the operation grows, it becomes clear that the notes are a lynch-pin in the faltering German war machine. As the team moves closer to a perfect forgery of the US dollar, Burger (on whose book the screenplay is based) begins to sabotage the process, despite worsening threats from the increasingly desperate SS officers.
Unusually, the focus of The Counterfeiters is not the detail of the Holocaust, although thats the fabric on which the film is drawn. Rather it plumbs the depths of the moral black hole in which Salomon finds himself. A fiercely loyal man, he lies and deceives to protect his friends, while ignorign the power the forgers really hold over their German masters.
Markovics gives a Jason Statham-style performance: his Salomon is a hard man, inexpressive, who sees their situation as simple: live, or die. Interestingly, the film develops parallels between his own survival-first approach and that of Herzog (Devid Striesow), the SS officer in charge of the counterfeiting operation. Herzog is friendly, approachable and generous, he is also a murderer. He does not consider himself a Nazi: he is in the SS simply to protect himself and his family. His moral dilemma reflects Salomons own: neither likes the answers theyve reached.
Walking a fine line between the conventions of suspense and the need to avoid fantasy, the film draws out a string of such difficult moral ambiguities. In an impossible situation, are any actions justifiable? Wisely, director Ruzowitzky avoids painting either Burger or Sorowitsch as heroes, and in the end, as with all Holocaust-survivor stories, it is only the fall of Berlin that offers salvation.
The film is shot in a similar hyper-realistic style to 2004s excellent Downfall, with the bleak environs of the camp recreated in misty greys that match the pallor of the inmates. In contrast, the counterfeiters workshop is a hive of life: handle-cranked machines operated by enthusiastic and proud workmen. The film is judicious with its brutality: there is enough detail to convey the brink of oblivion on which the counterfeiting team worked, but by no means does it document the grim realities of the death-camps.
While not as powerful as Downfall, or as emotive as Schindlers List, The Counterfeiters does manage to tell a fascinating and sensitive story without ending up morally bankrupt. There are some unforgettable moments, of German officers fraternising with their Jewish prisoners, and Salomon and Herzog sharing a friendly drink in the Germans charming villa. Well worth a look, and not as hard going as it might have been.