Movie review: The Counterfeiters
Unlike virtually every film character sent to a Nazi concentration camp, Salomon Sorowitsch deserves some form of imprisonment. Sally Sorowitsch, the focus of director-screenwriter Stefan Ruzowitzkys The Counterfeiters, had hardly been innocent prior to being taken to the camps. He was a wheeler and dealer a loan shark, gambler, boozer. If he had to pick one occupation to put on his business card, it would be counterfeiter and an extremely good one, putting his considerable artistic talent to the task. Despite being a small man, Sorowitsch conducted his affairs like a bully, using his intensity, his intelligence and his long chin to intimidate associates. As one acquaintance says of him at the beginning of the film, Sorowitsch is the most famous scoundrel in prewar Berlin.Entwined with his criminal conduct is his moral attitude, one built on practicality rather than principles. A Jew, and one who is not ignorant of the tone pervading 1936 Germany, Sorowitsch nevertheless advises blending in with the prevailing winds.The problem with Jews, he tells a friend, is that they have not been more adaptable.Within minutes of dispensing this wisdom, Sorowitsch, played with force and energy by Karl Markovics a prominent stage, TV and film actor in his native Austria is busted. An ambitious Nazi officer, Herzog (Devid Striesow), bursts into his studio, and Sorowitsch is sent to the Mauthausen camp.It is an interesting set of personality traits, talents and perspectives that Sorowitsch brings with him to the camp. He is street-tough rather than meek; his instincts as a survivor bring him to confront his Nazi captors. The only thing keeping him from being shot in an instant is his well-publicized skill as a counterfeiter, which the Germans intend to put to nefarious use. Sorowitsch also juggles a hard-core individualism with the honor-among-thieves ethos. Many of the camp inmates despise him for his background as a petty criminal.When the Nazi effort begins its downward turn with Germanys finances playing a prominent role in its eventual defeat Sorowitsch is transferred to the Sachsenhausen camp. There, he is ordered to lead a team of Jewish prisoners in the historicallyfactual Operation Bernhard, Hitlers plan to destabilize Britains economy by flooding the country with forged bills. The crew he assembles includes a younger artist, a staunch moralist, and a narrow-minded but devoted doctor.The Holocaust has kept filmmakers in the U.S. and Europe busy for decades. (Up next: Defiance, directed by Edward Zwick and starring Daniel Craig as one of three brothers who take refuge from the Nazis in a Polish forest.) There is a reductionist tendency to focus on the same set of issues, and The Counterfeiters hits most of them: the prisoners collaboration with the Nazis; the purely evil German versus the ones merely following orders; the philosophy of whether it is wiser to fight back and likely be killed, or to submit in the hopes of living another day, and another, until the nightmare ends.The Counterfeiters which has strong resemblances to 2001s The Grey Zone hasnt suffered much for its familiarity; it earned the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Picture this year. For that, it has the character of Sorowitsch Sorowitsch, and the actor Karl Markovics to thank. Sorowitsch begins as a complex enough guy, the charming, selfish rogue. His experience in the camp multiplies his facets: He wants to succeed as a counterfeiter to demonstrate his superior skills on one hand, and to keep himself invaluable to the Nazis. But he is also swayed that, by helping the Nazis, he is furthering their aims to destroy the Jewish race.Markovics performance is indelible; he could well have been a nominee for the Best Actor Oscar. It is strong enough that, even working with issues that have become almost predictable, The Counterfeiters is an illuminating and intellectually engaging return visit to the concentration camps.
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