The Nazi reign in Central Europe left, besides it’s horrific legacy, a great deal of fascinating stories to be told. One of those, the recount of “Operation Bernhard”, is the theme of this year’s subtitled Oscar winner from Austrian director Stefan Ruzowitzky, The Counterfeiters. Not only of historical interest, but morally diverse and fairly entertaining too.
A crook’s reward…
Karl Markovics, plays jewish notorious counterfeiter (and painter) Salomon Sorowitsch, who gets caught by Friedrich Herzog (Devid Striesow), the head of the respective german police department. Later on, in the heat of the anti-semitic frenzy he gets transferred from prison to a concentration camp, where he relys on his painting skills to get out of hard labour. In the meantime Herzog becomes an SS officer and leads a secret counterfeiting operation which is supposed to put the enemy’s economies to their knees by distributing massively false money to British and US citizens. When he needs a real master to oversee the procedures he remembers his big bust and calls for Sorowitsch. The former crook’s new prison is a privileged enclave even if it’s surrounded by the real camp where less fortunate prisoners suffer and get murdered, while the forgers work under the sounds of tango.
Deliver and live or not and die?
To oppose Sorowitsch’s pragmatism, comes a young idealist typographer called Adolf Burger (August Diehl) who refuses to complete the mission while half the world is fighting outside and their less fortunate co-prisoners suffer behind the stone walls around them. He sabotages the forging and constantly puts Sorowitsch on the line as well as the others. Faced with a tiny possibility of surviving if they deliver and a certain death if they don’t, Burger goes for the second if it means a strike is blown at the nazis. Sorowitch seems to understand but as head of the operation he is also responsible for their colleagues’ lives and prefers to focus on the smaller picture, to play out that tiny possibility of surviving, leaving fighting to the armys. Between those two, we get a glimpse of the morally scrambled SS officer who pretends he tries to save jewish prisoners by placing them in this kind of labour, having trouble to convince even himself though, while he leaves the “bad nazi” role to the typical swine number-two, Holst (Martin Brambach).
The battle of ideals.
As a crook and therefore a lone-operator, Sorowitsch continues to think himself as being out of the big war, a man simply caught in the middle trying to save whatever he can from the present time. Burger, is an activist who has thrown himself at the carnage, trying to save the future for his descendants. Ruzowitzki, though basing his script on Adolf Burger’s own memoirs, never loses the balance between those two sides, making them seem natural each for separate reasons. The two men have strong personalities and both fight intensely but for different objectives, while the rest linger between self-absorbment, fear, apathy and delusion of deserving special treatment in the hands of a compassionate nazi. We know already that Sorowitsch has survived, since we see him at Monte Carlo at the beginning of the film, so we can only wonder if he got through with his choice or something else has happened…
Thrills over lecture.
The writer-director puts his horror film experience to use, so that we get more from this film than moral ambiguities and he succeeds at creating an entertaining experience. While Burger and Sorowitsch’s characters are the script’s core, some dramatic incidents between the other cast members are pulled to the foreground, reminding them and us that it’s nor their show neither a time to match their egos. The outside mayhem is implied by sounds of human suffering that interrupt the delusion of bliss in the middle of despair, and keep the characters (and us) on their toes about the outcome of their decisions. All along the way, Ruzowitzki avoids excesses, obvious emotional set-ups or manipulative lecturing that could make his film look like political fiction. Markovics and Diehl dominate the screen while the rest of the cast excels in every small role.
An Oscar well given.
Even if I think Christian Mungiu’s 4 weeks, 3 months… is a work of cinematic genius and was criminally left out of the final contest, The Counterfeiters is a rightful winner, a very good movie from a rising European film-maker.