For the prisoners in Blocks 18 and 19 of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, meals were served, beds provided, light opera floated from the speakers. There was even a ping-pong table to play on.
But as writer-director Stefan Ruzowitzky shows, powerfully, affectingly, in The Counterfeiters, the privileges experienced by this small team of Jews and criminals came at a price. Printers, artists, bankers, forgers they were shipped from other camps to work on ”Operation Bernhard,“ a Nazi scheme to destroy the British and U.S. economies by flooding them with millions in fake pounds and dollars.
If the men balked at their task — in effect helping Hitler win the war — they were sent to another cell, where cries of pain, and occasional gunfire, were audible through their flimsy wooden walls. Moral uncertainty, survivor's guilt — accepting personal comfort knowing full well that others were being starved, tortured, gassed — that was their lot in life. But maybe they were going to have a life. That was the trade-off.
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Winner of the foreign-language prize at this year's Oscars, The Counterfeiters centers on Salomon Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics), a figure in the prewar Berlin underworld known for his skills as a forger of passports and currency. It is Sorowitsch, rounded up by a policeman-turned-Nazi officer (Devid Striesow), who is selected to lead the counterfeiting project in the camp. (Operation Bernhard was a real SS undertaking, and The Counterfeiters is based in part on the accounts of two surviving prisoners involved in its operation.)
Quiet, watchful, out for himself, Sorowitsch is a complicated figure — neither hero nor villain, and certainly no fool. The Austrian actor Markovics is riveting in the role; he is wiry, anticipatory, his eyes darting with intelligence and worry.
Filmmaker Ruzowitzky, also Austrian, bookends The Counterfeiters with scenes of Sorowitsch after the war: We know from the movie's first shots that he survived his ordeal in the camps, but that knowledge doesn't defuse the suspense. Rather, it adds to the mystery: How did the ace forger and his cohorts in the camp survive? What choices did they have to make? What soul-shattering compromises, betrayals? Was there defiance, revolt, sacrifice, sabotage?
Those questions ricochet around The Counterfeiters like gunfire.