Friday 30 November 2012

From the archive: "The Counterfeiters"

And still they come: another story from the concentration camps worth telling, and told well. The tense and intriguingly murky The Counterfeiters, an Oscar contender for Best Foreign Language Film, even manages something new (not to mention contentious), presenting Jewish inmates as not a unified front working towards a common cause – survival or collective martyrdom - but fractured, divided, prone to infighting.

Writer-director Stefan Ruzowitzky has chanced upon the true story of Operation Bernhard, the Nazis' attempt to sink Allied economies with inflation-boosting counterfeit banknotes. To this end, certain prisoners were employed as skilled labour: given soft beds and warm showers in their own enclosure away from the horrors of Sachsenhausen, these inmates were gently prodded to produce millions of phoney pounds and dollars.

The film presents us with the conflict between two of the counterfeiters. Adolf Burger (August Diehl) is keen to delay or sabotage anything which might fund the Nazi war effort, even if it means the loss of Jewish lives in the process. Conversely, Salomon ‘Sally’ Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics), once a flamboyant master criminal in Weimar Berlin, is keen to get himself (and perhaps only himself) through this by following his orders to the letter.

Burger's memoir ‘The Devil's Workshop’ provides the source material, but Ruzowitzky has switched perspectives to make Sorowitsch his sort-of hero, perhaps aware that the latter’s moral flexibility would make for more bracing drama than Burger's dogged resistance. Through the sullen, barely sympathetic Sally – a marvellously internalised performance from Markovics – the film can even dare to suggest there were dislikeable Jews in the camps.

That’s not the only radical reframing here. Most Holocaust films are dependent for their impact on terrible sights, but Ruzowitzky pushes his soundtrack to the forefront, stressing what could be heard coming over those protective fences. Instead of sudden visual assaults, there’s an ever-present aural threat, lending an even greater punch to those rare atrocities we, like the sheltered forgers, do witness firsthand. It's another intelligent decision in a film full of them.

(October 2007)

The Counterfeiters screens on BBC2 tonight at 12.55am.

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