Directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky. Starring Karl Markovics, August Diehl, Devid Striesow, Martin Brambach, August Zirner, Veit Stübner, Sebastian Urzendowsky. (2007, R, 98 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., April 11, 2008
What we call the moral compass often fails to operate under conditions described as the fog of war. In such times, an individual's moral compass can become a source of doom, as when scruples, a cause, or ideals get in the way of an invader's bayonet or rifle. Sometimes, survival of the individual is the only true direction toward which the compass points. These vagaries are the subject of the Austrian film The Counterfeiters, winner of this year's Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Salomon "Sally" Sorowitsch (Markovics) is a Russian Jew in Germany before the Second World War who puts his keen artistic eye and hand to use as a forger of passports, cash, and other valuable items. Unlike Hitler, Sally is not a frustrated art student; he has no desire to make art when making money is so much more lucrative. These scruples serve him well after he is busted for counterfeiting and sent to a concentration camp, where he bears the mark of a habitual criminal over the yellow triangle that brandishes him as a Jew. At the brutal Mauthausen camp, Sally uses his skills to curry favor with his captors by becoming the resident portrait artist. After some time, the prisoner is moved to the camp at Sachsenhausen, at the behest of the German officer who had arrested Sally in 1936 and still remembers the forger's unique skills. There, Sally is made the head of a special unit of currency counterfeiters, in a project based on the true story of Operation Bernhard, in which the Germans planned to destabilize international economies by flooding the market with bogus British pound notes and American dollars. Sally is also based on a real figure named Salomon Smolianoff, as recalled by Adolf Burger in his recent memoir describing his time as a prisoner in the unit. The Counterfeiters differs from most Holocaust movies in that the emphasis is on the personal moral choices that are made rather than the overall horror and despair. The two barracks of Jews working on the project are kept in what they call a "golden cage," in which they have enough to eat, beds with clean linen, and piped-in opera music to drown out the sounds of the murders committed on the other side of their thin plywood walls. The prisoners' dilemma over whether to assist the Germans and thereby ensure their continued survival is the heart of the movie, which keeps the focus on moral imperatives rather than the physical ravages of the camps. Ruzowitzky's focus on morality recalls his earlier feature The Inheritors, which dealt with issues of class, and he moves The Counterfeiters along at a fast clip that covers a lot of ground in an hour and a half. Even more taut-seeming than the film itself is the leading man, curiously named Karl Markovics, an actor with extensive television credits, whose stark demeanor and bulletlike head speak volumes. In such hands, The Counterfeiters becomes the real deal.