In 1942 the SS command had an ingenious idea, to counterfeit the Pound, then to flood the British Isles with the fakes in order to destabalise the economy. Ironically it was interned mainly Jewish forgers and craftsmen who would ultimately have to undertake this task; housed at Sachsenhausen concentration camp these inmates were treated slightly better than other poor unfortunate souls housed in the same camp and they were tasked with forging not only the Pound but stamps, ID papers, passports and ultimately the US Dollar. It was another dimension of Germany's war machine, one which ultimately grew to fund their own war efforts and had the war continued and the Germans had had the time to perfect the US Dollar then it would have changed the course of the The Second World War. Whether it would have changed the outcome is a debate for historians so it is incredulous that such an interesting period of that darkest time of history has never been fully examined. In 1981 though BBC Television produced a six part comedy briefly based around these events. Although highly enjoyable this earlier production never went into any fine details; it shied away from the brutality of the concentration camps turning the story into a dry comedic vessel as Michael Elphick plots his get rich scheme and the ever reliable Ian Richardson gets to showcase his versatility as a superb British actor.
Director Stefan Ruzowitzky read a detailed account of the proceedings in Adolf Burger's auto biography “The Devil's Workshop” and enlisted his assistance in getting a screenplay written to produce The Counterfeiters. Sally Solomon (Karl Markovics) enjoys the period before the war as a flamboyant playboy type character. The local spiv/Godfather, he seems to live decadently, intimidate locals on loans made to them and he counterfeits documents on demand for any clientèle who's willing to pay the right money. His efforts are cut short though as he's ultimately arrested and sent to work on a chain gang.
Being a Russian Jew Sally is transferred to a concentration camp and in his desire to live he starts drawing SS family portraits and German propaganda murals. His attentions do not go unnoticed and Sturmbannfuher Friedrich Herzog (David Striesow) eventually commandeers him to Sachsenhausen to join a gang of elite counterfeiters. One of these is Adolf Burger (August Diehl) a printer who is determined at all costs to delay any German operation, as he cannot justify his own involvement in any German operation which prolongs the war.
In 2008 this was nominated and, rightly so, run away with the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. In the previous year it was nominated for a number of other awards including production design, screenplay and costumes and as all of these individual features in this film are exemplary it can be argued that it could have taken any of these in the later Oscars. Similarly there's an excellent core cast of Markovics, Striesow and Diehl, any one of whom could have walked away with more trophies for this very fine production. It's incredibly difficult to film, and act in, a Holocaust feature; undoubtedly Spielberg's Schindler's List, whilst still only scratching the surface of the brutality inflicted on the Jewish population, perhaps being the best known, and although The Counterfeiters does touch upon some aspects of The Holocaust it never shows the rapid interment, the atrocious conditions and ultimate fate these poor people had to suffer. One can argue that this might be amiss for a Holocaust feature but this story is not about that per se, only about what one group of inmates had to do to stay alive.
The film shows the gentle evolution of Sally's character; initially portrayed as a somewhat despicable character you eventually warm to his nature as he comes to realise throughout his incarceration and discussions with Burger that there is more to life than his all encompassing ambition to counterfeit the US Dollar. To Sally this would be the pinnacle of his career and he finds it only fortunate that at this bleakest of times, talents which once landed him in a chain gang now allow him an opportunity to perhaps survive until the end of the war. Whilst he was initially only interested in self preservation eventually he understands all life is to be respected. There's an incredibly poignant moment near the end of the feature where Sally carries the dead body of a fellow inmate through the rotting corpses of starved Jews asking where he can bury his friend. Even though this is Burger's story we only see this story from Sally's eyes. He's on screen almost 100% of the time and it must have been a demanding role for Markovics to play; yet play it he does and play it very well indeed.
Throughout the second act of the film though you see the conflict arising between Sally and Burger. Sally's desire to remain alive is counteracted with Burger's more political leaning and his desire to sabotage the operation at all cost. This is the main thrust of the film for me, the questions which Burger raise make the viewer contemplate their own reaction in a similar situation. Now, of course, there is no conceivable way which one could even remotely understand, or relate to, the inhumane treatment inflicted on the people who suffered the most at the hands of The Third Reich but this film does ask that question...”under similar circumstances would you take the road of Sally and try at all costs to stay alive or would you have the pure ideology of Burger and do all you could, including risk of being beaten and shot, to delay the German war effort”? It's an interesting question to ask and one which I could go back to time and time again through multiple viewings.
There is some artistic license taken with this film though but Burger himself was employed as script consultant on the film he was always on hand to keep Stefan Ruzowitzky on track. Salomon Sorowitsch's character for example was in real life Salomon Smolianoff but both Burger and Ruzowitzky felt they had to change the names of all characters who were not still living. There are other subtle changes but none of any major degree not to look upon this as a good example of historical drama. Certainly it eclipses all other earlier variants including the afore mentioned Private Schultz and can be enjoyed from a number of different aspects. I still enjoy Private Schultz but now look upon it with slightly different eyes and I can highly recommend both.
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