The Counterfeiters

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 March, 2008, 12:00am

The Counterfeiters

Starring: Karl Markovics, August Diehl, Devid Striesow

Director: Stefan Ruzowitzky

The film: Stefan Ruzowitzky's Oscar-winning film is a fictionalised account of Operation Bernhard, Nazi Germany's audacious but unsuccessful scheme to destabilise the British economy by flooding the country with forged sterling banknotes. The fake currency was made in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp by inmates pressed into service by the Nazis, and the film is based on the memoirs of one of the counterfeiters, Jewish Slovak printer Adolf Burger (He was the only inmate to be represented in the film as himself).

However, the film's central protagonist is Salomon Sorowitsch, a fast-living Jewish document-forger who was arrested for his crimes before ending up in the concentration camp. At first a lowly detainee, Sorowitsch is elevated by the camp commanders to lead the team churning out fake money.

What follows gives Ruzowitzky's film a twist different to other concentration camp stories such as Life is Beautiful or Fearless. Because of their 'contributions' to the German war effort, the team is housed in a section with much better living conditions, including table tennis and classical music for recreation, and the privilege of staging and watching the occasional vaudeville show.

The grotesque contrast between luxuries in the so-called 'golden cage' and the deprivations of other inmates is at the heart of The Counterfeiters: how the forgers struggle with their conscience as they undertake the work.

In a way the film resembles last year's Foreign Film Oscar winner, The Lives of Others. The Counterfeiters is also about how individuals respond to their conscience's call under duress, of how humanity shines through even in the darkest hours of tyranny.

It's hardly a surprise, therefore, that the focus isn't on Burger, who was the most righteous, firstly electing to boycott the operation and then trying to secretly sabotage the proceedings from within.

It's through Sorowitsch that the story thrives, with Ruzowitzky - who also wrote the screenplay - presenting him as an unlikable, sleazy character whose instinct for self-preservation at the expense of others is gradually tempered as he juggles the demands of opportunistic SS camp commander Friedrich Herzog (Devid Striesow) and the fears of his fellow counterfeiters.

The extras: The DVD release comes with an array of useful featurettes about Operation Bernhard, and a making-of segment which covers interviews with Burger and his speaking tours in Europe about his war ordeal. (Although he stayed silent about what he did in Sachsenhausen for two decades after the war, Burger says he felt compelled to write his memoirs, The Devil's Workshop, after hearing neo-Nazi denials of the atrocities in concentration camps. There are also interviews with Ruzowitzky and Karl Markovics (above) and a series of deleted scenes.

The verdict: Combining the best of historical dramas and suspense thrillers, Ruzowitzky's production both intrigues and provokes moral dilemmas.