The Counterfeiters (Die Fälscher) (review)

A Money-Making Proposition

Nazis. I hate these guys. Not just because they were evil, and evil in the worst kind of banal way that refuses to let you think that kind of evil could never happen again, but endlessly evil in madly inventive ways that we’re still learning about today.
Like this: Did you know that the Nazis had counterfeiters working up phony British pounds and American dollars — like, lots of them — in an attempt to undermine the Allies’ economies and, totally coincidentally, allow them to pretend that Germany was not entirely bankrupt by 1945, if not earlier? (And of course I mean economically bankrupt, not morally bankrupt: that had happened by 1933.) Wait, it gets better: The counterfeiters were Jews incarcerated in concentration camps, former bankers and printers and artists and, yes, actual criminal counterfeiters, which led to all sorts of insane hypocrisy and contradiction on the part of the Nazis — their prisoners were Jewish scum, worthless examples of less-than-human filth, but they were also brilliant and talented and necessary to the German war effort, and yet they were also disgusting criminals who’d do anything to save their own skins, and so were commendable, except when they weren’t.

It’s almost as if — and this would be laughable if it weren’t so pathetic, nay, so wicked — the Nazis thought they were doing these poor souls a favor by allowing them to grovel for their lives while sacrificing their dignity, and purely by wild chance also setting up all sorts of conundrums for them: Like, for one, Is it worth helping the German war effort in an attempt to save your own life, which will result in a longer German war that is more likely to take your life?

Ay, the head spins with this kind of stuff all through The Counterfeiters, 2007’s Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language film and a damned intriguing thriller that asks more questions than it answers and leaves you dazed and upset and also a little inspired. Based on the book The Devil’s Workshop, by Adolf Burger, this is the true story of the counterfeiting program headed up by Sturmbannführer Friedrich Herzog (Devid Striesow, in a chilling performance) at the camp called Sachsenhausen. Herzog was the Berlin cop who, years before, had arrested the world-class counterfeiter Salomon “Sally” Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics), so Herzog knows the kind of talent he has on his hands.

Much of the film — written and directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky — is given over to the physical chore of faking the pound (before taking on the dollar), and to the mental chore of the prisoners’ dilemma: how far do you go in accepting privileges in such a place as Sachsenhausen — the counterfeiters get better food, comfortable beds, even some recreation — before it’s too far and you’re collaborating? What kind of passive resistence is possible in this situation?

Yes, you have to read subtitles, but this isn’t one of those impenetrably “foreign” films: it’s one of those all-too-plausible films in which you find yourself wondering what you’d do in the same situation.

The extras: The bonus material is much and varied and as compulsively watchable as the movie itself. The commentary track by Ruzowitzky is chock full of fascinating tidbits about the making of the the film… and though he speaks in English, subtitles are available if you find his accent too thick. (I didn’t.) Interviews are abundant, but the most intriguing one is with Burger, who wrote his book from firsthand experience (he’s a character here, but it would spoil the film to tell you too much about him) — he’s now in his 90s but still spry and sharp. Plus there’s a making-of featurette and a festival Q&A with Ruzowitzky and deleted scenes and more.

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