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Posted on Apr 23, 2008 in Books and Movies

The Counterfeiters – Movie Review

By Paul Glasser

2007, Sony Pictures Classics
Director: Stefan Ruzowitsky
Starring: Karl Markovics, August Diehl

Their lives inside the camp are portrayed in a grim palate.

The Counterfeiters (Die Falscher) is crafted with as much attention to detail as the inmates of Sachsenhausen used to produce millions of fake British pounds. The film is based on the true story of OPERATION BERNHARD, the largest counterfeiting effort ever conceived.

Under the plan, 142 artists, photographers and printers were recruited to help launch an assault on the financial institutions of the Allied forces. Between 1942 and 1945, the team produced counterfeit notes valued at 134 million pounds, more than four times the financial reserves of the entire British economy. The money was used to finance German agents and purchase imports.

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The movie is based on The Devil’s Workshop, the memoirs of imprisoned typographer Adolf Burger (played by August Diehl). It was nominated for a number of prizes at the German Film Awards and won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film 2007.

The main protagonist is Salomon Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics), based on the persona of Salomon Smolianoff, a highly skilled Jewish counterfeit artist. Markovics assumes every nuance of the role, from his hunched-shoulders walk to the way he eats his soup. With a grizzled visage and hollow eyes, Markovics is completely convincing as a concentration camp survivor. He’s supported by an able cast of characters, including the defiant idealist Burger and the brutal Hauptscharfuhrer Holst (Martin Brambach).

Sorowitsch and other inmates try to retain their humanity while imprisoned in their “golden cage.” Although better fed and clothed than the other inmates, the team of counterfeiters are still subject to abuse and degradation at the hands of Holst and his men.

Scene from The CounterfeitersThere are internal clashes amongst the inmates as Burger attempts to sabotage the counterfeit operation. Sorowitsch also has a deep personal struggle – he wants to conquer the dollar to sate his own ego but resents assisting the Nazis who imprisoned him.

The inmates are also shielded from the true horrors of the Sachsenhausen camp by a large wooden fence. However, they are unable to escape the incessant sound of marching feet as prisoners are forced to march in punishment details until they collapse. Surrounded by death, the inmates are granted bizarre rewards such as a ping-pong table, weekends to rest and a morale-boosting variety show.

In an effort to retain their humanity, they sing American jazz tunes and exchange artistic sketches, although they have no colors to paint with. In fact, color and music both play an important part of the film’s artistic design.

The tangos recorded by Argentine harmonica player Hugo Diaz enhance the sense of the characters’ melancholy and despair. Harsh, Wagnerian operatic music is also pumped into the workshop but fails to drown out the noisy presses or the prisoners’ resistance.

Their lives inside the camp are portrayed in a grim palate of grays, dark blues and browns, a somber image reinforced by their lack of colorful paints. Only in the scenes of life before and after the camp does life show any hint of color.

The film does an excellent job of telling the little-known story of OPERATION BERNHARD and certainly deserved to win its Oscar.

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