Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Counterfeiters: Hobson's choice

The Counterfeiters (2007) • View trailer for The Counterfeiters
Four stars (out of five). Rating: R, for violence, profanity and nudity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.24.08
Buy DVD: The Counterfeiters • Buy Blu-Ray: The Counterfeiters (+ BD Live) [Blu-ray]

All these years later, the Holocaust still reveals grim and fascinating stories.

And fresh stories of triumph, as well.
Maste forger Salomon Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics, second from left) is
dismayed to discover that the idealistic Adolf Burger (August Diehl, far left) is
sabotaging the faked American dollars produced by a team of incarcerated Jews
that includes Atze (Veit Stubner, second from right) and Dr. Klinger (August

The victory isn't immediately apparent in The Counterfeiters, the Austrian/ German co-production that just took the best foreign film Academy Award. Writer/director Stefan Ruzowitzky's compelling tale reminds us that heroes come in unusual packages, and that the greatest drama occurs when a single human being sets aside a lifetime of self-interest for an act that serves the greater good.

Ruzowitzky's film is both a complex character study and a fairly straightforward depiction of an extraordinarily clever — if all but forgotten — Nazi scheme that, if more successful, could have prolonged the war in Germany's favor. Although not entirely a failure, the plan did not unfold quickly enough to prevent Germany's defeat in 1945, and the credit for this spiritual triumph belongs to a cluster of incarcerated Jews who had been hand-picked for a most unusual work detail.

The film actually focuses on one man: Salomon "Sally" Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics), based as precisely as possible on real-life Russian-Jewish artist Salomon Smolianoff, one of the most notorious forgers of art and money in his day. After a brief prologue, the narrative unfolds as an extended flashback that begins in Berlin in 1936, where Sorowitsch moves casually in a world of swindlers, gigolos and loose women.

He's ruthlessly pragmatic, caring nothing for the rise of Nazi brutality or what it means to his own people; he demands top payment for every passport he forges for a Jew trying to flee the country. But like all those who believe themselves too smart, Sorowitsch gets careless: A lingering dalliance with a beautiful woman results in his being captured by the Nazi secret police.

The arresting officer, Inspector Friedrich Herzog (Devid Striesow), clearly admires Sorowitsch's skill and panache, but of course that doesn't change matters.

Initially sent to a typical concentration camp, Soro-witsch intelligently reveals his artistic skills and becomes something of a personal artist for the vain SS officers. He thus survives for several years before an unexpected transfer to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp.

Sorowitsch is re-united with Herzog, now promoted and in charge of "Operation Bernhard," a counterfeiting operation on an enormous scale. The goal: to design and mass-produce first British pounds, and then U.S. dollars, in order to weaken the economies of both countries.

When Sorowitsch arrives, the "team" of Jewish printers, graphic artists and typographists is struggling with both the artistic precision of both currencies, and the as-yet unsolved mystery of the special paper from which they're made.

Herzog, a clever motivator, believes strongly in the importance of Operation Bernhard. Wanting the best possible results from his work force, he isolates them in blocks 18 and 19, where they're sealed off from the rest of the camp. Sorowitsch enjoys better food and clothes, and even a comfortable bed. He therefore has no problem whatsoever in working to the best of his ability to fulfill Herzog's plans.

But it's all an illusion, of course, and one with unsettling and decidedly macabre elements that Ruzowitzky doesn't hesitate to exploit. Herzog repeatedly refers to his prisoners in a comradely manner, by calling them "lads"; he gifts them with cigarettes and even, in one ghastly gesture of idiosyncratic good will, a Ping Pong table.

(And no, Ruzowitzky didn't make up that particular detail.)

But the men are fully aware that countless Jewish prisoners are dying just on the other side of the thin wooden walls. Sorowitsch tries to ignore this, just as he repeatedly brushes aside the increasingly well- argued protests of fellow "shop" worker Adolf Burger (August Diehl), who insists that they do evil by helping finance the Nazi war machine with all this fake money.

Burger's acts of defiance become bolder, posing an increasing challenge to Sorowitsch's personal code of survival: to remain under the radar, be a good prisoner and hope to greet each new dawn.

The ideological clash, then, is as old as humanity: that between pragmatism and idealism.

We know of these events — the story that Ruzowitzky tells in his film — because Adolf Burger actually existed and was part of Operation Bernhard; he survived the war, lived a long life and eventually detailed his experiences at Sachsenhausen in a book titled The Devil's Workshop. It's interesting, then, that Burger is not the focus of Ruzowitzky's film, but rather a catalyst: one of the inexorable forces working at the edges of Sorowitsch's conscience.

One of the others is Kolya (Sebastian Urzendowsky), a young prisoner with an advancing case of tuberculosis: a "wounded sparrow" whose vulnerability touches our master forger in a way that Burger's impassioned speeches cannot.

Although Ruzowitzky doesn't shy from the concentration camp horrors that have become ubiquitous in films about this tragic slice of history, he also doesn't wallow in them.

His film is not an endurance test.

Which is not to say Ruzowitzky avoids such moments completely. Far from it: This story is punctuated unexpectedly by casual killings, bestial behavior by Nazi guards and, yes, one quite telling scene where "recovered" personal items from Jewish victims are revealed to maximum impact.

And while we're spared seeing the mistreatment of inmates beyond the walls of blocks 18 and 19, Herzog's "team members" do eventually confront the shambling, skeletal prisoners who exist elsewhere at Sachsenhausen; that meeting is emotional beyond description, both for this story's central characters, and for us viewers.

Ruzowitzky is, therefore, the best of filmmakers: one who understands that less is more, and knows when to play his strongest dramatic cards.

Indeed, one of the film's most appalling sequences comes when Herzog summons Sorowitsch to his opulent home, where the forger meets his captor's simpering wife and three young children. The woman chatters mindlessly about how this reasonably well-treated man before her is clear proof that the Allies lie about how Germany is "abusing" its Jewish population; she discusses Sorowitsch, while he listens in mute disbelief, as if he were a formerly rabid dog that has responded to patient training by a benevolent master.

It's an audacious scene that prompts gasps of revulsion and illuminates, with a force that casual concentration camp brutality could not, the degree to which privileged and willfully blind people — in this case, the "good Germans" — could persuade themselves that millions of their own fellow citizens were less than human.

Such revealing narrative moments have considerable dramatic impact, but the story is propelled by Markovics' carefully layered performance as Sorowitsch. He doesn't talk much, but his eyes speak volumes: weary, resigned, stubborn and, look carefully, suffused with a silent rage. Although clearly a criminal in the strict legal sense, Sorowitsch is not a "bad" man, and certainly not when compared to his captors.

And if we don't necessarily require that he survive his experience, we absolutely do hunger for the spiritual epiphany that Ruzowitzky's script demands.

Striesow makes Herzog the stuff of nightmares: a deceptively bland and cordial captor who becomes more horrifying precisely because he does believe himself more "enlightened" than the thuggish guards under his command. Knowing that Sorowitsch and Burger somehow are delaying the successful imitation of U.S. dollars, Herzog warns that rebellion in his "golden cage" still will lead to the gas chamber.

"And what a shame that would be," Herzog concludes, with mocking sympathy.


Ruzowitzky uses a washed-out color palette; his film isn't quite monochromatic, but the pale and somewhat grainy film stock subtly lends weight to the dispiriting setting. Cinematographer Benedict Neuenfels' wobbly, hand-held camera work adds documentary-style verisimilitude, but this visual affectation grows tiresome ... if only because it reminds me of too many lazy American film directors who've recently overused this technique.

Like any well-told historical drama, The Counterfeiters left me wanting to know much more about this story, and the prisoners who played such an important part in it. The real-world Burger, now in his 90s, still lectures about his WWII experiences. Less is known about the real-world Smolianoff who, according to his nature, vanished after liberation and is reported to have died in Argentina in the 1960s ... having survived, until then, on the money he obtained by selling "rediscovered" Old Master paintings.

Without question, truth is stranger than fiction.

No comments:

Post a Comment