Starring: Karl Markovics, August Diehl, Devid Striesow
Director: Stefan Ruzowitzky
It might be mostly set in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, but The Counterfeiters begins in Monte Carlo: the film's protagonist, Sally Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics), is seen arriving in Monaco after the war's end, his suitcase full of cash, which he duly lavishes on the casinos and nightspots, and then heads off to his room with a woman he has just met. It's in bed that she discovers a tattoo on his arm - the number to which he was assigned back in the camp - and the story flashes back to the past.
Based on the real events of Operation Bernhard, an ill-fated project through which Nazi Germany produced a well of fake pound sterling banknotes with a team recruited from camp inmates, Stefan Ruzowitzky's take is adapted from the memoirs of Adolf Burger, a typographer who was forcibly drafted into the team. That the Austrian filmmaker elects to make the fictional Sorowitsch (above right) his central character - and starts with the man's life as a big spender, albeit one tinged with melancholia - is testament to the story's underlying theme: how one survives when forced to compromise for survival.
While Burger (played by August Diehl in the film) represents one take on the moral dilemma - someone whose ideals are slowly usurped by harsh reality - Sorowitsch provides his mirror image, a crook and con man who regains his dignity bit by bit under Nazi tyranny as he casts aside his intuition for self-preservation to save his fellow inmates (Burger included) from being taken to task (and death row) by their supervisor, the sneaky but hardly monstrous Herzog (Devid Striesow).
The change is also sparked off by his realisation of how the team of forgers lives in what Herzog describes as 'a golden cage': while prisoners outside starve and struggle for living space, they sleep on beds with clean sheets, are fed fully, and even treated to some forms of entertainment (vaudeville nights, a table tennis table, muzak from the tannoys).
Films which touch on malevolent types rediscovering their humanity are hardly new - the good Stasi story of The Lives of Others, which won the best foreign film Oscar the year before this triumph, is another case in hand. Just like some of the films in this new genre, Ruzowitzky's film sometimes tends towards the overtly dramatic, if not romantic - such as the film's finale, again back in Monaco with Sorowitsch conversing with his new companion about the future.
The Counterfeiters is gripping, however, with its reflections on morality injected with elements of a suspense thriller. But it's Markovics' gritty performance as the flawed protagonist which carries the film, providing the vital essence about remaining human in the most inhuman of circumstances.
The Counterfeiters opens today