The moral conundrum at the heart of Austrian director Stefan Ruzowitzky’s “The Counterfeiters” is worthy of Kafka or Dostoevsky: What is the value of a single human life in the face of unspeakable evil? During World War II, one of Europe’s greatest counterfeiters decides, for a while, that his own survival is more important, until inevitably he learns that surrendering one’s soul and humanity may be worse than losing your life altogether.
Last Sunday, the Motion Picture Academy decided that “The Counterfeiters” was the best foreign language film of the year. Thanks to the arcane and idiotic rules of the academy, many other, better films – “The Band’s Visit,” to name one – weren’t allowed to compete in the category, but Ruzowitzky’s film is nonetheless well made, provocative and compelling.
Based on a true story, the film flashes back to 1936 from postwar Monte Carlo, where Salomon Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics) is living it up with a briefcase full of money. Back in Berlin before the war, Sorowitsch, a gambler, loan shark and all-around sleazebag, earned a reputation as king of the counterfeiters. The good life, such as it is, comes to an end for Sorowitsch after the Nazis begin rounding up Jews and sending them off to concentration camps. Sorowitsch is used to living by his wits and quickly wangles his way into a job as an artist for the Nazis, painting portraits of the camp commanders and billboards extolling the glories of the Third Reich. After a few years, he is rescued, as it were, by Herzog (Devid Striesow), the Nazi who first arrested him and is now heading a secret effort to flood the world capital market with phony British pound notes and American dollars and thereby undermine the Allies’ economy.
Unlike other prisoners, the men who are making the fake money live in relative comfort, with decent meals, sheets on their beds instead of straw and fully equipped lavatories with a row of white porcelain sinks. Classical music is piped into their workroom every day. The music is loud, but not loud enough to drown out the gunshots and screams coming from the other barracks in the prison camp. Some of the men in the counterfeiting group, like Sorowitsch, think primarily about their own survival, while others, like Burger (August Diehl), whose wife is in Auschwitz, are willing to put their own lives on the line to sabotage the counterfeiting effort. Burger continues to push Sorowitsch to undermine the counterfeiting efforts, but to no avail. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking, not only on the war but also on the existence of the Third Reich itself.
Ruzowitzky’s script is, for the most part, beautifully crafted. The flashback structure is rather an easy way of telling us that Sorowitsch survives the war, but that knowledge is necessary as it informs the complex moral debate at the film’s core. Only the finale seems out of sync with what’s come before. The final scene, of Sorowitsch dancing on a moonlit beach with a Monte Carlo bar girl, is beyond hokey. There are other plot elements that, whether they were based on actual events or not, seem set up, such as the fate of a young Russian prisoner whom Sorowitsch defends.
Ruzowitzky’s direction is mostly quite good and notably economical where it needs to be. He doesn’t waste a lot of time at the beginning of the film telling us that Sorowitsch is an amoral con man and getting him to the concentration camp. It’s a small point, but he displays a welcome respect for his story and for the intelligence of his audience.
But all of Ruzowitzky’s good work would have come to nothing were it not for Markovics, who turns in a chilling and complex performance in the lead role, making the character by turns sympathetic and amorally repugnant. With his underslung jaw and cold, reptilian eyes, Markovics looks as if he’s just crawled out from under a rock. He barely seems to register, much less react to, the horrors around him. And yet, because there is so often a glimmer of humanity in those eyes, Sorowitsch becomes almost sympathetic as we keep hoping he will finally do the right thing. It is a performance of profound, disturbing moral ambiguity that is the real heart of this story.
2.21GB | 1h 38mn | 1024×560 | mkv