In the dying years of World War II the Nazis launched the secretive Operation Bernhard, a last-ditch, desperate attempt to destroy the economies of the Allied countries by flooding their markets with forged bank notes. It was history’s largest counterfeiting operation, run out of barracks 19 and 20 in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp.
Austrian director Stefan Ruzowitzky’s compelling film explores the terrible dilemma that confronted the Jewish prisoners recruited for the operation. He has crafted a unique approach to the Holocaust genre, forsaking sentimentality for moral ambiguity, probing the motives of both the prisoners and their Nazi captors, in and out of the camps.
‘Sally’ Salomon Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics) is a Russian Jew living in the decadent, bohemian Berlin of the pre-war years. A night club owner, loan shark, artist and counterfeiter, he forges passports for Jews trying to flee the country for financial gain or sexual favours, not solidarity. He is seemingly nonchalant about the anti-Semitism sweeping through Germany. When a guest at one of his parties derides him for being Jewish, he casually suggests that she might want to spit out the Rothschild champagne she is drinking. Finally arrested for fraud, Sally is sent to Mauthausen, a slave labour camp, where he paints portraits for the Nazis in exchange for food and a relatively comfortable existence.
Eight years later, the man who arrested him, Friedrich Herzog (the excellent Devid Striesow) – now an SS Sturmbannfí¼hrer – selects him for Operation Bernhard, along with a number of more respectable members of Jewish society – fellow artists, bank managers, craftsmen. They are isolated from the rest of the camp, given soft beds, hot meals, even a ping-pong table. But Sally’s willingness to collaborate with the Nazis is challenged by Adolf Burger (August Diehl), a young, idealistic printer who has also been recruited for the project. Fervently opposed to aiding the Germans with their war effort, he is determined to sabotage the operation, putting the lives of his colleagues at risk. He rejects Sally’s pragmatism, identifying solely with the suffering of the prisoners outside the barrack walls. Burger becomes the very embodiment of guilt, simply for being a survivor.
The casual brutality and ritual humiliation suffered by Jews under the Nazi regime never ceases to be shocking or repulsive. There are the persistent insults, the constant threats of violence, the sadistic guard who urinates on Sally while he’s forced to scrub toilets. However, Ruzowitzky does not confine his contempt to the Germans, but subtly explores the complexities that haunted Jews like Sally and his colleague Kolya (Sebastian Urzendowsky), a young artist and fellow Russian. They are caught between two impossible ideologies, National Socialism and Communism, embodied by two terrifying regimes. Sally speaks German rather than Russian, alluding to a life and a family in Russia that have been torn away from him. He is utterly contemptuous of Burger’s socialist ideals, his own destroyed, replaced by a selfish instinct for survival. Sally, like millions of others, has been utterly eviscerated by the twin horrors that raged through Europe in those pivotal decades.
Stylishly filmed and superbly acted, The Counterfeiters is a film that manages to be suspenseful, entertaining and provocative, perfectly capturing the agonising decisions that tormented the men in Sachsenhausen.