The opening scenes of the Oscar-winning Austrian film The Counterfeiters take us to Monte Carlo right after World War II. The desolation of the streets, the strange solemnity of the Riviera, and the presence of respectably dressed beggars and black marketers tell us that even Monaco has been eroded by the war, though the casinos are still in operation.
A man arrives with a suitcase full of money. His appearance—skeletal face, grayish skin, flat nose, dead eyes—made me think of the gangster Popeye in Faulkner’s Sanctuary with his quality of “stamped tin.” Like Popeye, this Salomon “Sally” Sorowitsch seems a natural-born pariah. When he stores the money in a hotel safe-deposit box and an employee politely inquires if this is his first visit to Monte Carlo, Sorowitsch ignores the question. He doesn’t treat it as impertinence, he just doesn’t treat it. His inner solitude won’t be breached.
Or will it? Certainly not by his immediate and enormous success at the gambling tables, which elicits no trace of emotion from him. But a beautiful demimondaine, hoping to bask in the aura of a winner, comes to his room that night. She spots the concentration-camp number on his arm and her shock yields to a compassion that infuses her lovemaking. Something cracks open in Salomon Sorowitsch, and when he presses money on her in the morning, it’s more like an offering to a love goddess than a payoff. She wants to know who he is; he won’t tell her, but the rest of the movie, in flashback, tells us.
Sally had been a crook: a loan shark, nightclub owner, extortionist and, above all, a counterfeiter par excellence, this skill an offshoot of his self-frustrated talent as a painter (“Why paint to make money when I can simply make the money?”). Canny in his various con games, Sorowitsch is feckless about being a Russian Jew in 1939 Germany. When someone cautions him about what is happening to “your people,” he sneers, “I am I, the others are the others.” The Gestapo begs to differ.
In a death camp, Sally stays alive through sheer hardiness and cunning, but chance lends a hand. Herzog, the very policeman who tracked him down in Germany, now heads a unit trying out a last-ditch scheme to discombobulate the Allies: the forging of huge sums of dollars and pounds to flood their enemies’ economies. Sally’s expertise makes him one of the honchos of the operation. If he succeeds, he and his fellow counterfeiters—craftsmen from various professions—will live in relative comfort for a while. If not...adjacent to Sally’s block is a real death camp, where the counterfeiters can hear the dreary shuffling of feet, the rasped commands, the inevitable bark of guns.
As one who has always lived for the fast score, Sorowitsch pragmatically agrees to work for his Nazi captors. (Hindsight tells us that 1944 was too late for the counterfeiting scheme to work, but that’s only hindsight.) And all his fellow prisoners are too desperate to object. All except one.
Adolf Burger, a dedicated Communist, decides to sabotage the operation, regardless of consequences. “A revolt would at least be a sign...” Although captivity has kindled a surprising altruism in Sally (he repeatedly intervenes on behalf of two prisoners who have become useless, even detrimental, to the work at hand), his newfound compassion is directed only toward his fellow counterfeiters, not toward the Allies. His first reaction to Burger’s idealism is to stomp on it. But the Communist’s particular skill with gelatin (for the coloring of the bills) makes him indispensable, so Sorowitsch cannot have Burger eliminated or brushed aside. To save innocents and to sabotage evil lay within the power of Oscar Schindler, but no such option is available to Salomon Sorowitsch. Burger seems to be forcing the ultrapragmatist into an either/or situation, while Sally, summoning all his cunning, is determined to turn it into a win-win outcome.
This movie was superbly calculated by its writer-director, Stefan Ruzowitzky, to tear you apart. The counterfeiters, rendered without excess pathos or histrionics, become your reality for the duration of the movie; you almost forget about the Allies, who are fighting a war that is only a rumor for the prisoners. Your gut tells you to root for the prisoners’ survival and therefore to root for Sally. Yet your intellect tells you that Burger is right: the survival of a score of men surely counts for less than the generations that would be enslaved by a Nazi victory.
But Ruzowitzky makes it hard for us. He has Burger (played by the handsome August Diehl) enter the story with an act of quiet heroism. The idealist casts aside the second-hand jacket Commandant Herzog has provided because he won’t wear anything that belonged to a murdered Jew. So we immediately take to Burger. As the movie progresses, however, the Communist becomes a nag and a derider of everything Sorowitsch is doing to protect the team. Even if we continue to agree with him, our affection for Burger slowly drains away. Conversely, the ugly, hooded Karl Markovics as Sally repels us at first. But this remarkable actor, in his first internationally acclaimed performance, makes the career criminal’s awakened compassion so persuasive that we increasingly warm to him, though we might share another prisoner’s view that Sally’s instinct not to betray his “mates” is really just the jailbird’s code.
Even the camera work keeps us off balance. As far as I could tell, all of it is done with hand-held cameras, but it is so firmly executed that it never has the feel of a newsreel or cinéma vérité. To the contrary, the compositions have the solidity of any Hollywood production. But just when we’re getting used to this visual sureness, the camera will suddenly jiggle, undermining the solidity. Our eyes, like the counterfeiting inmates, are granted only a provisional security.
When Sorowitsch is first brought to the forgery workshop, the camera zooms forward just as he enters, an exhilarating movement that makes us share in the con man’s zest for a task that will not only keep him alive but also employ his talent for fraudulence and art. But wait a moment. Are we allowing ourselves to feel good about an operation designed to defeat the Allies? Shame on us!
After the first half of the plan is carried out—the forging of millions of pound notes—the prisoners are assembled before Commandant Herzog (Devid Striesow’s blend of joviality, smarminess, and brutality is perfect) to hear whether the notes were accepted by an important bank in Switzerland. By cutting back and forth from close-ups of the prisoners’ tense faces as they listen to Herzog recount what happened at the bank, to the actual encounter of the personable Nazi agent and the stuffy bank president, Ruzowitzky keys us to root for the success of the Nazi, because his victory ensures the survival of the counterfeiters. Shame on us again? Well, of course, but...those poor enslaved men!
Stefan Ruzowitsky has engineered a film that is both entertaining and disturbing. Sometimes disturbing because it is entertaining. And here’s a final kicker. I now learn that the script is based on the memoir Des Teufels Werkstatt (The Devil’s Workshop) by...Adolf Burger! I presume that Burger presents his plan of sabotage as the right thing to have done while depicting the conman’s objective as ultimately wrong, however compassionate. But after the movie was over, I felt like embracing the criminal, not the idealist. Ruzowitsky is one sly moviemaker.