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It is very interesting how it seems that every film about the Holocaust becomes a modern classic. The Counterfeiters is the latest attempt to breathe life into the subject by showing a true tale of how the Nazis bankrolled the end of the war with fake currency. The story itself is very intriguing and worth a history lesson, but as far as a film, what we really are given is one more concentration camp experience. There are the Nazis inflicting brutality on the Jewish prisoners, the token general assuaging his guilt by helping those he can for personal gain, the prisoners wanting to create a revolt, and those that just want to survive. While the pretense of why everyone has been brought together is new and refreshing, the total package is what we have seen over and over again. Both The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days were more original and enjoyable to experience than this one (well that’s relative since I don’t know how much one could say 4,3,2 is enjoyable) and they weren’t even nominated for the Oscar. Was this deserving? Maybe. Well-crafted and beautifully acted, I just wish there was more for me to sink my teeth into.

Even the gimmick of showing us our lead post-war at the start in order for him to remember the hardships that came before is a bit tired. Would him taking the fake money he made to Monte Carlo after the war scenes have been any different than him going there first, us seeing him make it, and then cutting back? Not really. What is intriguing is the comparison between Sally Sorowitsch pre-incarceration and him in the camp. A scoundrel, as one character says, in his bar before the war, Sally is a cocky criminal and womanizer doing what he can to stay in affluence while also honing his craft to crack the American dollar. Once he is captured and able to con his way into a somewhat safe status among the Jewish prisoners, we see his survival instincts take over. A selfish man before, a selfish man he stays, doing all he can to survive the war, painting and creating portraiture for the Nazis and their cause. The first sign of life we see is his compassion for a fellow captive on his final transfer. A Russian art student like he once was, they shared the same school and professor there, Sally gives up his soup and finally shows the solidarity we would expect in that situation. You see, amongst criminals, it seems, there is a code of honor to not give up one’s mates. Every jail is the same, he says, you just have to know the angles and the plays…Sally is a professional at both.

The relationship between this “artist” and his captor Herzog is a very interesting one. Being the man who arrested Sally before the war, Herzog not only got promoted for it, but also decides to enlist him to help his cause in the camp that he has started to control. They need each other to survive and that is one of the things that I love about WWII. These Germans are just as trapped in Hitler’s regime as the Jews are, (figuratively, yes I know the Jew’s had it much worst). Everyone is expendable and must do their job to survive as a high official can even be shot by nothing more than a whim by his superior. I believe one of the best scenes here is Sally at Herzog’s house, meeting his wife and children and their utter inability to comprehend what is happening around them outside their mansion’s bubble.

Along with those two, the rapport with Sally and Adolf Burger is fantastic as well. These two are kindred souls yet with one main difference. While Sorowitsch looks for his survival and that of those he can see, Burger wants life for his people and the country being persecuted whether he is alive to see it or not. Their moral fortitude is the same, however, and while they may disagree they will never risk the other in order to do what they believe is right. Either way, both men are key components in the fall of Germany, doing exactly what’s needed to be done at the exact right time, even though they could have never known it. Sally’s ability to get the forgeries made gave them the time for Burger to stall the manufacturing of American currency just long enough for the army to go bankrupt. It’s good to see that Burger, the man who’s book the film is based on, decided to not center the tale on himself, only allowing one instance at the end to give himself the credit of being a hero. Instead he allows Sorowitsch to take the stage, showing his leadership and unflappable calmness when confronted with the most dangerous consequences.

When a movie like this relies mostly on the reactions of men at the deaths of their friends, you can’t usually say much because it’s either believable or not. What makes this stand out, in that regard, is the fact that these men are so far gone that their emotions have been dulled. August Diehl, as Burger, is the best example of this, showing the devastation of finding out what happened to his wife without the capacity to cry. Devid Striesow is great too as Herzog, always being the good businessman, using tough love while also utilizing a reward system to keep morale as high as possible. The way he plays those around him is effective. As our lead Sally, Karl Markovics is perfect. Stoic and always thinking, he portrays the man orchestrating everyone’s survival with little movement. His blank stare is as emotive as anything else in the film, especially when he flinches at gunshots that he knows have hit their targets. By not showing emotion, he exudes his feelings even more. Mention should also be made for Sebastian Urzendowsky as Kolya, the young art student that Sally takes under his wing. A broken man, he is the most fragile and animated, infusing some much-needed life into an otherwise retold version of the same story we’ve seen before.

The Counterfeiters 7/10

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photography:
[1] Left: Karl Markovics as Salomon Sorowitsch. Right: Dolores Chaplin as Die Rothaarige. Photo by Jat Jurgen Olczyk © Beta Film GmbH, courtesy Sony Pictures Classics. All Rights Reserved.
[2] Left: Karl Markovics as Salomon Sorowitsch. Right: Devid Striesow as Friedrich Herzog. Photo by Jat Jurgen Olczyk © Beta Film GmbH, courtesy Sony Pictures Classics. All Rights Reserved.

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