Writer-director Stefan Ruzowitzky, best known stateside for The Inheritors, delivers a knockout with The Counterfeiters, his sixth feature. A hit on the festival circuit, the film is an amalgam of terrific work on many fronts—acting, production design, music, etc. Ruzowitzky honors all the talent with his strong, beautifully structured and eloquent script. Upscale audiences will embrace the fine results.
Of course, the filmmaker also had the benefit of a fascinating true World War II episode, as told by Adolf Burger, a member of the titular counterfeiting group. The story, with liberties taken to enhance the drama, revolves around Salomon “Sally” Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics), a pleasure-loving, Russian-born Berlin scoundrel of the waning Weimar days and early Nazi years who womanizes, cheats and executes phony money and forged documents for fellow Jews wanting to escape Germany.
Ruzowitzky bookends his tale with post-war scenes in a posh Monte Carlo hotel and casino where Sally, suited up and pulling funny money from a suitcase, lives large. An exotic call girl he picks up (Dolores Chaplin, Charlie Chaplin’s granddaughter) surprises with her suspicions that this free-spending dandy might be a camp survivor.
But the bulk of The Counterfeiters covers the extraordinary war years of Sally and his counterfeiting team, beginning with Sally’s arrest in Berlin by inspector Friedrich Herzog (Devid Striesow), who rousts him from the bed he shares with his latest “client” in his counterfeiting studio.
Whether arrested as a Jew or a counterfeiter or both, Sally is sent to a Mauthausen concentration camp, where his artistic skills win him the job of portraitist to the Nazis. A few years later, he’s transferred to Sachsenhausen, where he learns the importance of knowing the right people. Herzog re-emerges here as a powerful commandant in charge of Operation Bernhard, a grand plan in which the Nazis will partially fund their war by counterfeiting English pounds and American dollars and flood the market so that both economies are ruined.
The detainees are experienced men: printers, artists, engravers. Herzog handpicks the artistically gifted but morally challenged Sally as a kind of operation leader. The team settles into decent camp quarters, but not far enough removed to keep away the screams of terror and maybe the hellish smells. But their food is decent and they have their own doctor. Their clothing is even passable, except for the hints that these come from murdered Jews.
Paradoxically, both the proximity to the atrocities and the bearable conditions are powerful motivators, as are the not-so-veiled threats and occasional cruelty from the Nazi supervisors. The pressure is on to produce phony bills—first pounds, then dollars—that will pass scrutiny. The Counterfeiters provides just enough information on the fine points of printing (collotype vs. rotogravure, etc.) so that we get a sense of these options and Sally’s particular skills.
The film derives considerable suspense from whether the bills will convince. Sally’s fake pound notes are first brought to a Swiss bank before the big test at the Bank of England (technically a flashback within a flashback, once a cinematic no-no but fine here). Sally’s genius rules and he’s a twisted kind of hero, as the Brits at the highest level are fooled.
But creation of the counterfeit dollar is a bigger challenge. The problem has to do with idealistic young collotype expert Adolf Burger (August Diehl), whose memoir is the basis for the film. Burger, as he tells it, sabotages the negatives needed for printing in order to delay the Nazi plan.
But outside events are having a greater impact. The war is nearing an end and the Allies approach. Commandant Herzog, scheming a way out should the enemy arrive, shows himself to be every bit as opportunistic as Sally and calls upon his protégé for a reciprocal favor.
All performances are terrific, but Markovics as Sally and the remarkably versatile Striesow (who was so memorable in several recent Hamptons Film Festival German offerings that will be in theatres) as the commandant make The Counterfeiters required viewing. Also exceptional are the soundtrack and production design that evoke the decadent Berlin before the Nazis clamped down, the concentrated world of the almost pampered counterfeiters, and a post-war Monte Carlo steeped in lavish turn-of-the-century architectural extravagance.
Additionally, distributors Sony Pictures Classics might get lucky with a controversy: Is Sally—the scheming, unscrupulous, driven Holocaust survivor—so different from the opportunistic and greedy corporate, real estate, hedge fund, banking and other business sharks of today who sail along on wafer-thin layers of conscience? At least Sally’s behavior had roots in real matters of physical survival, not just selfish schemes to bag another unneeded windfall of millions, regardless of the consequences to others.