The cost of faking money
BY JASON BLAIR
THE COUNTERFEITERS (Die Fälscher): Written and Directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky. Cinematography, Benedict Neuenfels. Music, Marius Ruhland. Starring Karl Markovics, August Diehl and Devid Striesow. Sony Pictures Classics, 2008. R. 98 minutes.
Early in The Counterfeiters, the 2007 Academy Award winner for Foreign Language Film, a man asks Salomon Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics) if he’s concerned about the treatment of fellow Jews by German soldiers. Pre-war Berlin must have been an absurdly tense place, but Salomon’s reaction isn’t one of sympathy for Jewish suffering or even disdain for Nazi tyranny. Instead, Salomon replies with defiant self-preservation: “I’m me, and the others are the others.” Identifying with no one, Salomon is no Oskar Schindler, but what Salomon is may well save his life and the lives of others. Salomon, who answers to Sally, is a world-class document forger, a precise, confident and darkly humorous man whom men fear and women respect. Physically taut and mentally alert, Sally is always one move ahead. He wins, he says, even when he doesn’t cheat.
|Salomon (Karl Markovics) and Die Rothaarige (Dolores Chaplin) in The Counterfeiters|
Not even Sally can escape the German police, however, and by 1939 he’s shipped to a labor camp in Mauthausen. Wasting no time, Sally inserts one of his drawings into the papers of an officer’s clipboard. Impressed, the officer requests a rendering of himself, after which Sally becomes an unlikely sketch artist for the officers, then their families, then finally the camp muralist. Each promotion earns Sally a little more food and, potentially, a little more security, but never the respect of his captors, to whom he is inferior merely for being Jewish. But these early scenes, in which Sally’s talents cause the Germans to suspend their disgust for him momentarily — while Sally remains true to his isolationist nature — are some of the best and most subversive of the film.
Sally’s gifts land him in Sachsenhausen, a death camp where, in a scene of powerfully contrasting natures, he easily dons a dead man’s coat, even as his companion Burger (August Diehl) cannot. Burger is an idealist, a rigid believer in principles and causes; Sally is a survivor, which makes him a chameleon, a man who will say or do whatever is necessary to stay alive. Their collision is inevitable, but for the moment, they learn to coexist. Sally is given control of the “retouching department,” a quaint name for a large-scale counterfeit operation involving Jewish artists, printers and engravers. If they can duplicate the British pound, they might prove too useful to eliminate. As the work intensifies, so does its implications: The Jewish forgers have sided with the Germans, who will probably kill them anyway, by creating notes so authentic they are funding the German war effort. Only Burger seems to have a problem with it, to which Sally replies, “One adapts or dies.”
Their final project is the U.S. dollar, the most technically difficult currency to replicate at the time. An enigma on par with Fermat’s Last Theorem, the U.S. dollar had never been counterfeited, largely because Sally never had the resources to duplicate it. Now he does, but when his perfect negatives produce poor replicas on paper, it’s clear there’s a saboteur in the group. Should Sally give up Burger? What is the value of one human life? How have these forgeries transformed the forgers? These and other questions play out in the eye of a storm, in the relative peace of the counterfeit lab walled off from the horrors of the concentration camp.
While artistically satisfying, The Counter-feiters has some technical flaws worth mentioning. A handheld camera gives the film an intimate, modern-day feel, but at times the photography is too active; the restlessness suggests access but can feel amateurish. The harmonica-heavy score feels too diffuse for the material. The sound is slippery, occasionally delayed and at least once, positively tardy. Otherwise The Counterfeiters, which recently premiered at the Portland International Film Festival, is tense and straightforward, a refreshingly spare morality tale that adds something new to a darkly familiar chapter of our history.
The Counterfeiters opens Friday, April 25, at the Bijou.