I refused to go see The Counterfeiters in theaters (it played at the Angelika for months) because I was annoyed that it had won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film when Persepolis and 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days hadn’t even been nominated. (Yes, I am that petty.) The thing is, I actually was interested in the premise (stories about moral quandaries fascinate me), so once it came out on DVD, I decided to stop being a brat and give it a chance.
As it turns out, The Counterfeiters is pretty much what I expected: not a great film, but a good one with a remarkable lead performance and a provocative story to tell. It’s not half as visionary as Persepolis, nor as raw and taut as 4 Months, but it’s not a cheap Holocaust-exploitation pic either (cough*Life Is Beautiful*cough). It didn’t deserve to beat out two of the best movies of the year, in any language, but neither did it deserve to be the subject of my silly, pointless boycott.
Karl Markovics stars as Salomon “Sally” Sorowitsch, a talented forger of World War II–era Berlin who, being Jewish, is sent on his arrest not to prison but to a concentration camp. Several years later, he is drafted for an unusual camp work detail: supervising a counterfeiting operation. The Nazis’ plan, spearheaded by Sturmbannführer Friedrich Herzog (Devid Striesow), is to forge British pound notes and American dollars and flood the market with them, crashing the Allied economies. Herzog provides his prisoners with decent food and real bed linens—luxuries compared to what the other prisoners in the camp receive—but his demands are tantamount to collaboration with the enemy. Some of the prisoners are happy for the chance to survive, but Adolf Burger (August Diehl), an idealistic young communist, wants to sabotage the operation, and Sally finds himself caught in the middle.
Diagramming this conflict looks easy, but what’s interesting about The Counterfeiters—the best thing about it, in fact—is that writer-director Stefan Ruzowitzky (adapting the real Adolf Burger’s memoirs) refuses to let the prisoners’ dilemma be that simple. Counterfeiters isn’t just about individual good versus collective good. It’s also about the inherent value of an individual life. If Sally is willing to bargain with Herzog for life-saving drugs for a young prisoner, is that contemptible or righteous? If Burger doesn’t place much value on his own life (he seems tormented by survivor’s guilt), is his willingness to sacrifice that life less noble? What about his willingness to sacrifice the lives of his comrades? And if Herzog thinks he, too, is being coerced by the Nazis, do the allowances we might grant his prisoners apply to him as well?
Each of the three principal actors gives a restrained, subtle performance. Striesow gives Herzog a jolly, seemingly easy-going manner and only gradually unveils hints of fearful ruthlessness and self-loathing. Diehl takes a character who could have been an impossible paragon and gracefully explores Burger’s shadows along with his virtues. But the movie belongs to Markovics. Sally’s weaselly face conceals much, but with his sharp, intelligent gaze, Markovics still allows us to glimpse Sally’s strain and pride and dread. Sally’s motivations are murky and contradictory, and Markovics knits them together into a beautifully complex portrait of a duplicitous man who wants to live but who cannot quite settle on what price he’s willing to pay to do so.
Ruzowitzky is to be commended for writing such intriguing characters, but elsewhere his screenplay loses momentum. The framing device adds nothing, and a few key scenes indulge in pointless underlining when the actors already have the emotions well in hand without them. Worse is Ruzowitzky’s uneven direction: the camera careens from quiet observation to distractingly abrupt push-ins and shaky tracking shots for no apparent reason, diminishing the film.
The Counterfeiters is only better-than-average, not great, but it sticks with you anyway because the subject matter is so powerful. In an early scene, Sally tells Burger, “I won’t give the Nazis the pleasure of being ashamed I’m alive,” eloquently capturing the argument for the honor in surviving, but the movie undercuts that argument, too: in some circumstances, perhaps one should be ashamed. Yet after the sad, muted conclusion, all judgment is left to the audience. The movie offers no easy answers; if anything, it suggests that if the question is cruel enough, no good answers are possible.