“Well that was a lovely movie suggestion for a sunny spring afternoon,” my friend sarcastically remarked after leaving the small Santa Monica movie theater. He had a fair, if not obvious, point. Set during the Holocaust and staged predominately in a German concentration camp, “The Counterfeiters” (2007 Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film) is an unnerving, tightrope-walk of a film. As it chronicles the true-story account of Salomon Sorowitsch and Operation Bernhard, the movie becomes much less about the Holocaust and more about the ethics and emotional costs of Darwinian self-preservation.
Operation Bernhard is the code name for one of the Nazi’s most hair-brained and outrageous military schemes. As the war came to a close and the Reich feared impending defeat, they assembled an ad-hoc prisoner team of counterfeiters with the intent of printing millions in foreign currency. These millions in hand, the Nazis would then achieve a two-pronged directive of funding their war effort while simultaneously floundering the enemy’s economy. Only a Nazi mastermind, or possibly an “Ocean’s Eleven” screenwriter, could think up such a bizarre and sinister strategy.
Austrian director Stefan Ruzowtisky discovered Operation Bernhard through the memoirs of Auschwitz survivor Adolf Burger, but was obviously more interested in the complex and morally ambivalent Salomon Sorowitsch. Portrayed brilliantly by actor Karl Markovicz, Salomon — or “Sal” — is the self-serving, maverick counterfeiter without whom Operation Bernhard would have been nothing but a Nazi pipe-dream. Sal is also the hardened and calloused Darwinian without whom “The Counterfeiters” would be nothing but just another inspiring Holocaust story.
From the beginning shots of a post-war Sal nihilistically feigning enjoyment at a luxury casino, we know that this is a survivor’s story. Ruzowitzky thus frees us from any serious emotional threats, but replaces them with ethical and moral questions. At what cost has Sal purchased his survival?
The film then dives into a fast-paced and unsettling chronicle of Sal’s Holocaust experience. Originally prospering as an isolationist, Sal is inevitably cornered by the Nazi counterfeiting squad after he fails to heed his own advice: “I am me, and the others are the others.” But he stalls just a few hours too long with a beautiful woman in need (who can resist?). He is captured, and eventually sent to the “luxury” concentration camp of Sachsenhausen to lead the Operation Bernhard’s counterfeiting department. In exchange for cooperation, Sal and his team are offered little more than survival, but they accept with few complaints.
The action moves so quickly through the movie that Ruzowitsky gives his characters, and his viewers, no chance to develop a real sense of security. There is a misleading levity to the film established by the distinctly upbeat Yiddish score, the relative comfort of the barracks and even the occasional joke — but considering the tragic danger of the surroundings, the characters’ optimism is obviously affected and more unnerving to the viewer than an outright acknowledgement of horror might be.
Try as they might to veil themselves against reality, Sal and fellow prisoners are constantly faced by the truth and forced to question the morality of their self-preservation. As the stakes escalate, this blindly selfish attitude becomes nearly impossible to maintain, and yet, director Ruzowitsky never paints their insensitivity as unreasonable; “The Counterfeiters” is not a movie of heroes and villains, only of different human reactions. The farthest the film goes in its commentary is to show the emotional costs of the isolationist philosophy, without vilifying it. It is up to the viewer, and to each character, to ultimately decide his own level of morality.
Ruzowitsky only approaches outright condemnation of Sal and his gang of counterfeiters in the dramatic final minutes during which the war comes to a close. After many of the Nazis have fled, the prisoners from the other barracks stage a coup and gain control of the camp. When they finally break into the barracks of Operation Bernhard, it is an eerie, chilling scene as the emaciated and tortured prisoners come face to face with our well-fed and coddled team of counterfeiters. As Sal and the others try desperately to convince the rebel prisoners that they are all brethren, the counterfeiters are called to task for their insensitive self-preservation.
It is as if the entire Holocaust that had been occurring just outside their windows literally comes knocking at their door. The jig is up.