Sony // 2007 // 98 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // July 28th, 2008
It takes a clever man to make money, it takes a genius to stay alive.
"Why make art in order to make money when you can just make money?"
In the 1930s, Salomon Sorowitsch (Karl Markovichs) was one of the world's greatest counterfeiters. He could replicate seemingly any paper bill using the equipment of an amateur, and for several years he enjoyed the benefits of this profession. However, when Sorowitsch tried to reproduce the mighty U.S. Dollar, he was captured by the Nazis and sent to a prison camp. He managed to survive there for five years by using his skills as an artist, painting flattering portraits of the Nazi guards and their families. The prison camp was a brutal place, but Sorowitsch managed to make himself as comfortable as possible given the surroundings. He is disappointed when he hears that he is being transferred to another prison.
This prison is run by Sturmbannfuhrer Herzog (Devid Striesow, Eden), the very man who captured Sorowitsch several years earlier. Much to Sorowitsch's surprise, Herzog proves to be even gentler than his previous captors. He provides Sorowitsch and dozens of others with comfortable beds, cigarettes, and other small luxuries. All he asks in return is that Sorowitsch and a team of Jewish prisoners duplicate the Pound and the Dollar to perfection. If they fail, they will all be killed. If they succeed, they are helping the Nazis win the war. Sorowitsch doesn't need much time to think about this. He determines that every man must do what he needs to do to survive and gets to work on the project. He is confronted by Adolf Burger (August Diehl, Slumming), a fellow prisoner who views the project as a moral outrage and is constantly subverting it. Sorowitsch would never dream of ratting on a fellow prisoner, but he doesn't want to get killed, either. Carefully, he attempts to walk an ethical tightrope, hoping that the Allies will crush the Nazis before he falls off.
It's admittedly tempting to dislike The Counterfeiters, a film that is practically begging for some sort of critical backlash as it hits DVD and Blu-ray. The film was surprisingly nominated for Best Foreign Film of 2007 by the Academy, and even more surprisingly was selected as the winner of that category. I've only seen a handful of the noted foreign films from last year, but I must say that nearly all of them were superior to The Counterfeiters. Even if the movie does deserve to be taken down a peg or two, and even if it is a rather shamelessly blatant attempt to woo awards voters, I can't honestly say that it's a bad film. No, it's a pretty good film, and it's worth watching.
I suspect that The Counterfeiters might have made a stronger documentary than a film. The facts presented here are nothing short of fascinating, and the basic story is very compelling. Initially, the Nazis planned to use the money to drown the Allied economy, overloading both America and England with an unwanted deluge of dollars and pounds. As the war progressed and things got worse for the Nazis, the plan changed. They couldn't afford to wait for foreign economies to sink, they needed to simply use the money to buy more weapons and resources. While the Jewish counterfeiters were facing the dilemma of how quickly to succeed in their task, the Nazis were facing the dilemma of figuring out how to make the prisoners do what they wanted. Was gentle coaxing or harsh brutality the more effective method? The frightening questions being asked in this story had real-life consequences, and they provide some real food for thought.
The performances were ignored by the Academy, but they are the elements of this film that actually do deserve to be recognized. Lead actor Karl Markovichs is a revelation as Sorowitsch, with a hard and rugged face that typically says more than the character does. He fully embodies the role, and August Diehl provides a nice idealistic balance as Burger. The scenes these two share are strong points in the film, as these two compelling men weigh the pros and cons of idealism and self-preservation. However, the performance that really stands out here is Devid Striesow's turn as Herzog, the Nazi prison camp leader. There's a frightening sweetness to Herzog that is far more chilling than the simplistic cruelty of the other Nazis in this film.
The hi-def transfer spotlights some of the film's unfortunate technical aspects. The movie is shot in a "gritty," super-grainy, handheld way that supposedly lends some sort of dramatic credibility to these otherwise clean and sanitized proceedings. It's hard to tell what's intentional and what isn't, but I'll give those responsible for the transfer the benefit of the doubt and just assume that the film is supposed to look kind of crummy. The sound is certainly solid, featuring a soundtrack littered with evocative tango pieces. The special features are pretty generous. A commentary from director Stefan Ruzowitzky probably has more "uhs" and "ums" than I've ever heard in such a track, but it's got some nice info. A 10-minute making-of featurette is here, but that's nothing compared to the lengthier interviews with Ruzowitzky, Markovics, and the real-life Adolf Burger, which run about 38 minutes combined. There's also an additional 20-minute lecture from Burger on life in the prison camps. A 13-minute Q&A with the director from a film screening suffers from weaker audio, but it's pretty good. Finally, several deleted scenes and a theatrical trailer wrap up a very solid batch of supplements.
It's difficult to make a successful film about the Holocaust. If you make a film that is morbid and tragic, attempting to capture the full weight of that horrible event, you risk alienating a lot of potential audience members. If you make a film that is humorous or exciting, you risk charges of taking your subject too lightly. The Counterfeiters attempts to ride the line as carefully as possible to avoid falling into either camp. This causes yet another problem: the film feels far too calculated. There are a lot of scenes here that feel restrained from honesty, simply because they are not willing to move too far to one side or the other.
Additionally, The Counterfeiters starts to flounder whenever it moves away from its core ideas. The "dramatic" sequences bookending the film (featuring Sorowitsch gambling at a glamorous casino) feel oh-so-phony, far more like a screenwriter's attempt at adding depth than a scene from a real life. At its worst, The Counterfeiters plays like a bad version of The Great Escape, borrowing the usual clichés and contrivances from a whole host of prison movies. The scenes featuring the sadistic Nazi guards are tiresome; we really don't need to be convinced that Nazis are bad at this point. Herzog aside, the bad guys aren't permitted any complexity, lest we ever think that they are human beings.
While this is hardly Best Foreign Film material (the Academy has a history of making poor decisions in that particular category), The Counterfeiters is an interesting look at a little-known part of WWII history. It's worth seeing, and really a shame many will probably hate it for simply failing to be more than it is.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (French)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (German)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 98 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Commentary w/Stefan Ruzowitzky
* "Adolf Burger's Historical Artifacts"
* Additional Interviews
* Deleted Scenes
* Q&A w/Stefan Ruzowitzky
* "Making-of The Counterfeiters"