The Holocaust has been revisited in film so many times that I imagine the first thing German-born film actors ask themselves upon meeting is “which film(s) were you a Nazi in?” The crimes of the Nazi Party and the German soldiers carrying out its mission to revive Germany through the mass killing of Jews and other “invalids” are so unfathomable and powerful that filmmakers and storytellers can’t help but find so many ways to tell complex stories of morality and human survival.”The Counterfeiters” is another one of these films, but lack of originality is absolutely the only knock against it.
“Counterfeiters” focuses on a group of Jews assembled by the Nazis to create mass quantities of Ally currency to be used to decimate Ally economies. It’s the same type of lens on the Holocaust, but a different “edition” so to speak. Yet the script is immaculate, the drama understated and effective, the plot completely engaging, and best of all: it’s a Holocaust film under two hours — and a great one at that.
It begins with a morally complex main character, the crooked-faced Salomon “Sally” Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics), who before the war was a professional counterfeiter, one with considerable artistic talent who chose the more “financially sound” career. Simply put, he’s a criminal and the crimes of the Holocaust manage to make us sympathetic to him. He’s an honest criminal, but a criminal no less. As the leader of his counterfeiting team in a way, following his point of view is extremely interesting. There is his survival instinct, his pride over the work even though it’s helping the Nazis and characters such as his friend Burger the printer (Adolf Burger, who wrote the book the film is based on), who pressures him not to do the work and risk death on principle.
These are all familiar Holocaust film themes. There are the Jews who will do anything to stay alive, helping the Nazis or doing whatever they bid for an extra scrap of food and soft beds and those who would be willing martyrs, dying before they stoop to a certain level or help a Nazi.
The difference is in the execution. Stefan Ruzowitzky has done an incredible job adapting Burger’s incredible true account. He’s identified the key moments and turning points and crafted ideal scenes to help build the plot up. He wastes no time getting to the point. The scenes are short and sweet, giving us bursts of information, emotion and symbolism, sometimes in just a minute. Directing off his own script, he directs us to key visuals that convey all that information like a leftover piece of food that conveys the hunger not always at the forefront of a scene. The pacing is exceptional, especially for a Holocaust film, and though some of the scenes are brutal it doesn’t hit the audience over the head with scenes of terror and emotion that go straight for the heartstrings. It’s much more subtle and effectively so.
It’s hard to visit yet another Holocaust film, but “The Counterfeiters” is worth it because of Ruzowitzky’s fine craftsmanship and its overall subtly. It’s the impact of a Holocaust film without all the emotionally distressful scenes and the screaming and the heartfelt violin music. The unique story of Sorowtisch and these group of Jews who are given a bit more privilege yet in turn forced to wrestle with a bit of moral guilt makes it a warranted trip into a oft-visited historical genre.
The Counterfeiters (Die Falscher)
Directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky
Written by Stefan Ruzowitzky, Adolf Burger (book)
Starring: Karl Markovics, August Diehl, Devid Striesow