"The Counterfeiters" **** (out of ****)
"The Counterfeiters" directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky is based on a true story about the largest counterfeit program in history. It was also the Oscar winner for best foreign language film marking the first time an Austrian film had won the award.
This is yet another example of a WW2 story that somehow time forgot. You'd think by now we may have heard all the horror stories about the Holocaust but they keep coming out and oddly enough many times they are German films, that is partly what made last year's Oscar winner "The Lives of Others" such a welcomed relief, it dealt with Communism instead of Hitler.
"The Counterfeiters" is not so much a war story as it is a story of individual identity. The film is based on the book "The Devil's Workshop" by Adolf Burger, but the film is not about his life. It is about a man he stood side by side with in a concentration camp, known as "the king of the counterfeiters", Salomon Sorowitsch (Karl Markovic).
Sorowitsch has made a nice living being able to counterfeit any legal document including money. But when he is rounded up and taken to a concentration camp the Nazis believe they can use his "gift" to their advantage. The Nazis want to break the British economically by circulating fake British pounds eventually they want to counterfeit U.S. dollars as well, but due to Sorowitsch's incredible work, along with a team of others, including Adolf Burger (August Diehl) and a young Russian Jew, Kolya (Sebastian Urzendowsky), The Nazi believe they could use this money to fund the war. Now Sorowitsch is put in a moral dilemma and this is where individual pride and nationality come into play.
Sorowitsch is a Russian Jew living in Austria. He however does not regard himself as a Jew but merely a businessman. He is willing to do business with anyone, just as long as they pay him. When he meets Kolya and reveals to him that he is also Russian Kolya is surprised to learn Sorowitsch does not like to speak Russian any longer he prefers German. Now Sorwitsch has abandon his Russian roots as well. Who and what is he really?
Most of the prisoners in the camp are happy to be alive and go about counterfeiting money, knowing full well what he may lead to, Germany's victory but Adolf Burger refuses causing problem for everyone as he refuses to print the money. He destroys it. Other prisoners fearing for their life do not understand his actions. Is it not better to be alive or is it more just to die for a noble cause?
Burger and Sorowitsch represent two different sides of the same coin. Burger will not forget his Jewish blood, Sorowitsch will do whatever he has to in order to adapt. He doesn't go by labels, Russian, Jew or German it is all the same to him.
Jews, much like gypsies, generally refuse to assimilate. They rarely adapt the customs of their land whether it is Russia, Poland, Germany or Hungary. Hebrew is spoken fluently in the home and they usually befriend their own. In fact two very interesting films were made dealing with this subject in Hungary, Istvan Szabo's "A Napfeny ize (Sunshine)" and Lajos Koltai's "Sorstalansag (Fateless)". In "Sunshine" a family tries to hide their Jewish blood while society will not let them. In "Fateless" a Jewish boy is put in a concentration camp and when released no longer feels Hungarian. He has resentment in his heart towards Hungarians whom he feels sold out their own, Jewish Hungarians.
"The Counterfeiters" doesn't dwell as deeply into this subject as the two mentioned films but there is no way to deny the ideas are there. In order to survive does one have to go against their people? Does that phrase even mean anything, one's people?
As I mentioned before this film won the Academy Award. While it is a very good film, a masterpiece, it didn't deserve to win. The more worthy film did not make it to the second round of the nominating process, it was a Romanian film "4 luni, 3 saptamani si 2 zile (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days)". Not only did that film not get a "Best Foreign Language" nomination it was completely shut out of any major awards as well. So for as good as "The Counterfeiters" may be, it is the second best foreign language film.
Still though don't allow that to stop you from seeing this film. I am very thankful I did. It has been a rough year. I've yet to see one truly great work of art this year. One film which I could describe as a masterpiece. If you look at my reviews you will notice I have not given any 2008 release four stars. "The Counterfeiters" will most certainly make my top ten list at the year's end. It is the only film I have seen thus far that actually provoked strong feelings within me. It is a film about something. It would be great if the Academy nominated the film for some awards such as cinematography and/or the musical score. But because we are taking about the Academy don't expect them to do the right thing.