The Counterfeiters

A movie review of the film “The Counterfeiters” by Libby Wadman for KPCW radio, Park City
The Counterfeiters, 2008’s Oscar winner for best foreign film, is not your typical WWII movie. This is not a movie that demonstrates the vast scale of the war, or a movie that splatters the horror of the war across the screen in vivid Technicolor. No, if you want the traditional WWII movie with larger than life battles and heroes, this is not your film. If however, you are interested in a piece of the war’s history, and its impact on individuals, then this Austrian/German production is right up your alley.

The Counterfeiters, directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky, is loosely based on the actual attempt by the Germans to counterfeit enough British pounds and American dollars in order to destroy the economy of both countries. The focus of the film is the character Salomon “Sally” Sorowitsch, a lifetime criminal known for his ability to counterfeit currencies.

The film starts with a brief look at Sally after the war enjoying time in Monte Carlo. It quickly flashes back to 1936 Berlin where Sally is introduced to the viewer enjoying himself at a nightclub. Life is still good for this Jewish man living in Nazi occupied Berlin. His situation, however, quickly changes as he is arrested for counterfeiting, and sent to a concentration camp where he plays the game and survives as the prison artist for five years. Much to his surprise and consternation, Sally is suddenly moved to the Sachsenhausen camp where he is assigned to Block 19, a relatively luxurious block, with none of the horrible conditions that he knows to be the standard. His questions as to why this good treatment are soon answered when the officer who originally arrested him appears, and explains that Sally will now be in charge of a counterfeiting team consisting of bank and printing experts. As long as this group does what the Nazis want, they will be well treated and allowed to live. However, they are always in earshot and sometimes become unwilling witnesses to the violence that surrounds them in the camp.

An interesting aspect of the film is the detail given to the counterfeiting operation, but the real heart of the film is the moral dilemma with which the prisoners are faced concerning survival. What is survival, and is survival at any cost acceptable? This is not only an individual, internal conflict for each member of Block 19, but creates a conflict between Sally and another prisoner, Burger. Sally believes that one should do whatever it takes to stay alive and fight the fight. As he explains, ”Only by surviving can we defeat them”. Burger on the other hand, believes that the individual must defy the captors, and not do what is asked, even if it means being put to death right there on the spot. In his mind, each prisoner must, without regard for his or her own life, try to sabotage all Nazi efforts. Which man is right? Is one doing more to end the war? Is one only helping to prolong the war? These are the questions that The Counterfeiter so adeptly, leaves in the minds and hearts of the viewer to answer.

One would think that this deep of an issue would be loaded with emotion, yet this film is has very little. These characters, who are so well portrayed, are for the most part devoid of emotion; the sort of self protective reaction one might expect from people constantly bombarded with the types of horrors witnessed in the camps. This makes the outbursts between Burger and Sally all the more powerful, and allows the viewer to really weigh both sides of the argument in a more unbiased way. The last scene of the movie really makes this worth the viewing as we see Sally with a momentary hesitation reach his conclusion.

The Counterfeiters is an intriguing movie with very little fidget factor that will have you thinking and talking about it long after the credits have run. This makes The Counterfeiters a wonderful way to tend the Park City Film Series’ 2008/2009 season, with showings Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, June 6th, 7th, and 8th.

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