When someone says that there is a new film based on the Holocaust that you just have to see, most potential viewers equate this with their reaction to having to eat their broccoli as a kid — yeah, it might be good for me, but it’s far from pleasant. Stefan Ruzowitzky’s The Counterfeiters contains all of the troupes we’ve come to expect from films of this sort. It does focus on a group of persecuted Jews in a concentration camp, it does effectively recreate the inhumane treatment inflicted upon these prisoners and it does remind us of the dehumanizing effect this had on both the prisoners and its captives. And at the center of it all, is a charismatic anti-hero and contains a compelling human story that poses intriguing moral questions regarding personal safety versus sacrificing oneself for a larger cause.
Salomon “Sally” Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics) is a gifted artist, a man who could create masterpieces if he were so inclined. Instead, he spends his time forging passports, government documents and currency. Foolishly, he continues to live in Berlin, even after the Nazis have come to power and he soon comes to their attention. He is apprehended, sent to Mauthausen, gets the attention of the officers there by doing their portraits and is eventually shipped to Sachsenhausen. There he is put in charge of an ambitious counterfeiting scheme as the Nazis want forgeries of the English hundred pound note and American hundred dollar bill so that they can be produced on a massive scale and then introduced into these respective economies in order to ruin them.
Sally willingly agrees to head this project as he recognizes that he and his assistants are treated better than other Jews in the camp and he fails to see the harm he is facilitating on a grand scale. However, Burger (August Diehl), one of the etchers who works with him, does. He proposes that they stall and eventually sabotage the project, reasoning that they are helping fund the Nazi’s war effort and that in doing so they are just as much the enemy as their captors are. This leads to a clash of ideologies between the two men, as Sally is more than happy to do what he’s told and hopefully, ride the storm out until the end of the war.
The moral quandary that Ruzowitzky puts forth is a compelling one as viewers will likely find themselves torn between these two perspectives. While Burger’s intentions are noble, Sally’s reasoning is sound as well and as the film progresses the moral dilemma becomes more and more pressing and intriguing. Needless to say, the tension between the two characters is stretched to the breaking point.
Markovics’ performance is a finely tuned thing, as we first meet Sally after the war and see he is a sullen, withdrawn man who does his best to keep his emotions tamped down and under wraps. He is much the same when we see his ordeal told in flashback, but there are glimmers of sympathy that even he cannot contain. He takes a young artist (Sebastian Urzendowsky) who studied at his alma mater under his wing and we see that despite his best intentions, Sally comes to care for this man, knowing that such an emotional investment may come back to haunt him with tragic consequences. In the end, it is this that is the truism that Sally cannot escape — while his work may consist of nothing but forgeries, his soul remains open to others, despite the lies he tells himself.
Now playing at Boardman’s Art Theatre
Runtime: 1h 38 min — Rated R — Drama/War