The CounterfeitersWritten and directed by Stefan RuzowitzkyStarring Karl Markovics, Devid Striesow and August DiehlRated R*8*
Goes well with: Schindler's List, Life is Beautiful, The Pianist
Winning an Oscar can do wonders at the box office, and in no category is that more evident than Best Foreign Language Film, which shines a spotlight on movies that otherwise go largely unseen. This year's winner, the Austrian film The Counterfeiters, is bound to see a bump, but more importantly, more audiences will get to see a terrific performance from Karl Markovics, who plays a habitual criminal who somehow becomes a better person in a death camp.
The film opens in the 1950s in a Moroccan casino. A little hatchet-faced man lays down big bets at the roulette table, winning more money and a romp in the sack with one of those chicks who hang around high-rolling casinos. But she spies the tattoo on his wrist, a souvenir of his time in a Nazi death camp during World War II, forcing him to relive his wartime experiences.
Salomon “Sally” Sorowitsch is no ordinary Holocaust survivor. He's a master counterfeiter who spent the early war years printing enough cash to live the high life and making high-priced bogus passports for Jews trying to get out of Germany. Sally was all business—no payment, no passport. But a careless move gets him busted, sent to the camps and adorned with the green triangle, the Nazi sign of the criminal. But those crooked instincts keep him alive until he's plucked for a special assignment, heading up the inmate side of Operation Bernhard, the real-life Nazi scheme to forge British and American currency in the conflict's late stages, run in the film by Sturmbannführer Friedrich Herzog (Devid Striesow), an SS officer who was, in his former life, the same hard-nosed police detective who finally caught up with and arrested Sally.
Sally and his fellow forgers, most of whom come from banking and printing backgrounds, and many of whom bristle at Sally's crooked past, are given extra food, treated reasonably well by Herzog and given the chance to save themselves by making a contribution to the war effort. And Sally is given the chance to achieve his unrealized goal of finally forging the dollar. But being celebrity inmates in a concentration camp still isn't an enviable position. Death is always a terribly real possibility. It's still a camp, after all, and the pressure is on, as the Nazis desperately need them to succeed in their efforts and will use any means necessary to make sure they do. Plus, not all the guards are as enamored with the Jewish forgers as the commandant. And, more importantly, if they succeed in their assignment, they're only helping the Germans fight on, leading at least one prisoner, Berger (August Diehl), to attempt his own form of sabotage from within.
This is a very intense film, both inside and outside the camp. The scene in which Herzog takes Sally to meet his family—his wife, his three blonde Aryan children—is almost revolting in that it's business as usual for so many people while, nearby, Jews and others are being murdered.
Like any good forgery, The Counterfeiters also has flaws. Some of the characters are one-dimensional, and the movie's framing device, Sally's post-war gambling adventures in Morocco, doesn't do the rest of the film justice. So it isn't perfect, but these issues are primarily in the execution of the story, and the film's Gordian knot is so tightly tied that its blemishes are fairly forgivable. Additionally, Karl Markovics is so strong as Sally—a crooked man desperately coming to terms with what is important to him and trying at every turn not just to do the right thing, but also to sort out exactly what it might be.
And it's sincere. Unlike Sally's bankroll, it isn't a fake.