The Counterfeiters was the winner of the Best Foreign Language Film at the 80th Academy Awards. It’s an extraordinary story, based on real events, although some have been fictionalised to slightly to fit the narrative. The protagonist is Salomon ˜Sally’ Sorrowitz, based on the real Salomon Smolianoff. A Russian Jew living in Germany just prior to the outbreak of World War 2, Sally is living the good life.
He’s a charmer and a raconteur, easy with people and free with his money. After all if it runs out, he can just make some more “ literally, for Sally is a master counterfeiter. But he knows that Germany is no longer safe for him and is planning on making an exit (with forged papers, naturally). However, on the eve of his departure, he is arrested, and like so many others, is sent to Mathausen concentration camp.
An individualist, Sally keeps his head down and seeks to survive, currying favour with the guards by drawing their portraits in heroic poses, and in this way he makes it through the next few years as unscathed as anyone could hope for in the circumstances. Then one day he is transferred to Sachsenhausen just outside Berlin.
He has been sent to work on ˜Operation Bernhard’, an extraordinary plan by the Nazis to use concentration camp prisoners’ labour to launch a huge counterfeiting operation. The aim is to create perfect forgeries of pounds and dollars and use them to flood the UK and US, devaluing their currencies and creating an economic crisis.
This group of prisoners find themselves in a situation they have become unused to: they are now needed by the Nazis, so they sleep in a dorm with mattresses “ the height of luxury. They can hardly believe it. They are no longer on a starvation diet and they are now unlikely to be shot arbitrarily because a guard is in a bad mood. They can shut the window and shut out the sound of the non-privileged Jews in the exercise yard. We rarely see the other prisoners “ and this is very effective “ if these are the lucky ones (although lucky feels like the wrong word for men who are prisoners only because of their race, separated from their loved ones, verbally abused, subject to beatings and forced into work) we can only imagine what life is like for the less fortunate.
After the group succeed in the creation of the pound forgeries, they are set to work on the dollar. However, there is tension amongst their number. One of the prisoners, Burger, on whose memoirs The Devil’s Workshop the movie is partially based, has realised the Nazis must be struggling financially and the work the prisoners are doing is essentially funding the German war effort by to the tune of millions of pounds. He refuses to contribute to the creation of the forged dollars. Sally, the individualist, the pragmatist, argues that if they don’t succeed with the dollar they will no longer be useful. If they are not useful, they will be killed. In his view these are not times for principles, but for survival, and a tense stand-off between him and Burger arises.
The horror of the situation is skilfully illustrated, as the prisoners are forced into terrible decisions, always aware they are the ˜lucky’ ones, but that their luck will run out. Many have families in other camps and feel terrible guilt at the comparative luxury of their circumstances “ but as Sally says ˜I won’t give them the satisfaction of thinking I’m ashamed to be alive.’
The direction is unfussy, unflashy; there is no need for frills, as director Stefan Ruzowitzky has a compelling story that only needs to be told simply.