The Counterfeiters

May 29th, 2008 Film, Film Reviews, Xpress

It seems we’ll never run out of stories about the Second World War. Stefan Ruzowitzky’s concentration camp drama won the Oscar for Best Foreign film, and it turns expectations on their heads by drawing a very fine line between hero and villain.

It’s too easy to portray Nazis as menacing, bloodthirsty killers and the Jews as kindly, loving family folk who were just trying to earn a living. You don’t often see a concentration camp commandant declare he’s not interested in violence and spilling blood, just as you seldom see inmates who were convicted career criminals, recruited into the service of top secret war efforts.

That was the intention of Operation Bernhard, the real-life Nazi attempt to forge enough allied currency money to cripple the economies of Britain and the US.

When the war breaks out and the rounding up of Europe’s Jews begins, local police chief Herzog (Striesow) catches up with master forger Sorowitsch (Markovics) and he finds himself imprisoned in the death camps. Only the wit Sorowitsch learned as a crook keeps him alive, and when Herzog — now a Nazi officer — recognises him years later, he hand picks him and several others for their skills and offers them comfort, food and privilege in return for their work on Operation Bernhard.

The moral dilemma is a tired cliché in movies, but the sense of desperation in Sorowitsch’s quest turns gripping. A fellow inmate, Communist Adolf Burger (on whose book the film is based), wants to sabotage the operation and help ensure Germany’s defeat, paying with all their lives if necessary.

A realist with no ideology except staying alive, Sorowitsch wants to deliver the fake fortune and remain indispensable, holding onto a whispered promise by Herzog that he’ll be taken care of up to and after the end of the war — a promise he knows Herzog probably can’t keep.

Writer/director Ruzowitzky employs a warzone, handheld feel that doesn’t quite gel with the story, feeling a little gimmicky. But if you think you’ve seen enough World War II stories, The Counterfeiters will draw you in despite yourself.

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