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The Counterfeiters

An Oscar-Worthy Foreign Film

Directed and adapted by Stefan Ruzowitzky (All the Queen's Men, Anatomie, Die Siebtelbauern) from Adolf Burger’s book, The Counterfeiters ("Die Fälscher"), the 2008 Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film, explores the moral and ethical dilemmas confronted by concentration camp inmates during World War in Germany. The men, mostly, but not exclusively Jewish, were handpicked for their skills, talents, and experience to participate in the largest counterfeiting scheme in history, codenamed “Operation Bernhard.” No starker choice faced the men recruited into Operation Bernhard: survival meant open collaboration, non-collaboration meant a slow death through starvation and hard labor or a quick death via gunshot.

An unrepentant forger and counterfeiter, Salomon “Solly” Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics), runs afoul of the law in Berlin several years before the war. As a Jew, Solly loses all rights, including the end date to his original prison sentence. Transferred from the concentration camp at Mauthausen to the camp at Sachsenhausen, Solly learns that his old nemesis and police inspector, Friedrich Herzog (Devid Striesow), has been put in charge of the Nazi effort to counterfeit foreign currencies, primarily the British pound and the American dollar. Herzog, now a Sturmbannführer with the German SS, had Solly transferred to Sachsenhausen. Along with several other inmates -- including Kolya Karloff (Sebastian Urzendowsky), a young art student, and Adolf Burger (August Diehl), a political dissident -- Solly joins Operation Bernhard.

Segregated from the rest of the concentration camp, Solly and the other men enjoy a relatively comfortable existence (e.g., better food, mattresses, a weekly shower, and even downtime). But everywhere Salomon turns, a dilemma presents itself. By forging foreign currencies for the Nazis, Operation Bernhard is likely to extend the war or even help Germany win. Burger continually agitates for subversion or sabotage but, knowing the consequences of resistance, Solly refuses. Solly, however, prefers smaller, less noticeable gestures like protecting Kolya after he becomes ill with TB and protecting Burger from the camp’s resident sadist, Hauptscharführer Holst (Martin Brambach). But the increasingly desperate Germans demand that Solly and the men counterfeit the American dollar, an almost impossible task.

With an often claustrophobic focus on the men inside the segregated barracks and Operation Bernhard, The Counterfeiters uniquely offers the dilemmas faced by men and women in concentration camps during World War II: survival versus principle, compromise versus heroism, selfishness versus self-sacrifice. To his credit, Ruzowitzky doesn’t give any easy answers and by using the fictional Solly, an amoral character whose inner transformation is so gradual that it’s almost imperceptible, Ruzowitzky also sidesteps the easy moralizing or, even worse, the specific, repeated, genre elements that have accreted around Holocaust dramas (e.g., the sadistic camp officer, the seemingly more benevolent officer, the sick young man in desperate need of medication, etc.).

Ruzowitzky complements the nuance and subtlety of his approach to the material with unobtrusive camerawork. While Ruzowitzky leans heavily on handheld camerawork to capture the gritty realism of camp life , he doesn’t overdo the shaky cam bit, instead using the camera as an active participant to track Solly and the closed-in world. Ruzowitzky also elicits uniformly strong performances from his cast. In Karl Markovics and August Diehl, Ruzowitzky found the perfect actor to play the amoral Solly and the conscience-stricken Burger respectively. The other performances are almost as good, but ultimately it’s the deeply disturbing moral dilemmas and the gray, murky world the characters inhabit that will stay with moviegoers long after the end credits roll on The Counterfeiters.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars