Making money for the Nazis

The Counterfeiters: 98 minutes. Rated: MA. Director: Stefan Ruzowitzky. Starring: Karl Markovics, August Diehl, Devid Striesow, Sebastian Urzendowsky

The Counterfeiters Accounts of World War II concentration camps are invariably horror stories. The horror experienced by the Jewish prisoners at the heart of The Counterfeiters is not so much a horror of the physical world as it is a horror of their own consciences.

The Counterfeiters is based on the true account of Operation Bernhard, where Jewish prisoners with artistic skills or printing experience were put to work by the Nazis to forge British and American currency.

The purpose of the operation was to weaken the US and UK economies by flooding them with the counterfeit currency. Whether or not the bills were also intended to purchase war material is historically debatable. What is clear is that the Jews who worked on Operation Bernhard lived in relative luxury compared with the other prisoners of Sachsenhausen concentration camp.

It is this fact, as much as the prisoners' feeling of complicity in the Nazi war effort, that presents the daily ethical dilemma faced by the characters of The Counterfeiters. That's particularly true of those who had previously experienced Auschwitz — they have escaped the reality of that horror, but not the knowledge that other Jews continued to suffer.

At the heart of the drama is Salomon 'Sally' Sorowitsch (Markovics), a professional counterfeiter whose expertise makes him a pivotal player in the Nazis' counterfeiting operation. Sally is somewhat of an antihero — for the most part he avoids making waves and does his captors' bidding in the name of self-preservation.

It's not that his motives are selfish, per se. More than once he puts his neck on the line in order to protect his fellow prisoners, notably vulnerable young Kolya (Urzendowsky), whom he takes under his wing. It's just that his behaviour is based solely upon their immediate circumstances, rather than any 'bigger picture' principles.

The egalitarian end of the spectrum is upheld by subversive Adolf Burger (Diehl), who survived Auschwitz by playing worker ant for the Nazis but is now beyond such game-playing. He recognises the disruption the participants in Operation Bernhard could cause, if they can set aside concern for self-preservation.

Ironically, Burger comes across as the more selfish character compared with the quietly dignified Sally. That he's willing to risk not only his own life but also those of his unwilling peers in the name of the greater good hardly seems heroic. Still, under the circumstances, heroism is certainly a nebulous concept.

When it comes to sabotaging the operation, the key difference between Burger and Sally is that Burger's role is active, and Sally's is, ultimately, passive. But both prove to be equally pivotal.

This Austrian production is the latest in a string of Central European films that seek to tell the untold stories of the region's troubled recent history. Like forerunners such as Downfall, Black Book and The Lives of Others it finds simple humanity amid emotionally and ethically complex situations. Sally, portrayed by Markovics with dignity and restrained power, may be an anti-hero, but it's impossible not to empathise with his every move.

Official movie website

Tim Kroenert Tim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. His articles have been published by The Age, Inside Film, the Brisbane Courier Mail and ASif. He is a contributor to the inaugural edition of the journal Studies in Australian Weird Fiction. Email Tim



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