It takes a clever man to make money, it takes a genius to stay alive.
The Counterfeiters is the powerful Oscar-nominated feature selected as part of this year’s Best Foreign Language Film category from Austria. Directed and co-written (with Adolph Burger) by Stefan Ruzowitsky, the picture is the dramatized account of Operation Bernard, the Nazis secret plan to destabilize the United Kingdom by flooding its economy with forged Bank of England currency. The protagonist is a Berlin-based Jewish counterfeiter named Salomon Sorowitsch.
Sorowitsch, a petty criminal, womanizer and a lush, is determined to survive the war at all costs. Based on the memoirs of professional printer Adolph Burger, (portrayed by the rising young actor, August Diehl) who himself imprisoned by the Nazis for political dissent, the film takes us into 1936 Berlin where we meet Sorowitsch, a successful forger of currency and passports. In Berlin he is well known as The King of the Counterfeiters.
Arrested by the police, he is tossed into a concentration camp, where in order to survive he befriends the guards by using his artistic skills to paint flattering portraits of them. Oddly enough, some of them even commission him to paint portraits of their families. When his artistic talents are noticed he is transferred to Sachsenhausen concentration camp and placed in a special section for counterfeiting. It is run by the same police official (portrayed by Devid Stiesow) who arrested him in Berlin years back.
All of the special section prisoners have unique skills for their assigned tasks and work diligently to avoid transfer to the extermination camp, which surrounds their barracks. Day and night they hear and smell death just on the other side of a wooden fence. But Sorowitsch is a survivor. He is kind of a Bogart-type from another WWII-related film, Casablanca. “I stick my neck out for no man,” could be Sorowitsch’s mantra. He is portrayed by Karl Markovics, a fabulous German stage and screen actor who, for better or worse, is internationally known for a cheesy hit TV series called Rex: A Cop’s Best Friend. (I only know this because I remember sitting an a hotel in Karlsruhe, Germany in the early 90’s actually watching this show about a cop and his German Shepard solving crimes together. Kind of like Knight Rider, but a dog instead of a car.)
Self-serving behavior was not unusual for this type of predicament as many camp prisoners had to savagely adapt for any hope of survival. Some more than others. As the fascinating offbeat methods of counterfeiting are depicted, the men carry out their work with the highest standards. They are artists after all. The men are treated royally by concentration camp standards. They are housed in actual beds, given adequate food and some minimal medical care all under the pseudo-friendly oversight of the project’s director, the former police official from Berlin, Major Herzog. (In real life his name was Major Bernhard Krueger. Hence the name of the project Operation Bernhard.)
What Krueger oversaw was simply the greatest counterfeiting scheme in history.
Apparently, just a month into the war, German finance officials and the SS devised an incredible plan to destroy the world’s financial structure. The plan was to perfectly forge the English pound and flood the economic markets with them.
From 1943 to 1945, the special unit in Sachsenhausen helped to forge more pound notes than all the reserves in the Bank of England. $650 million in English pounds were forged, worth nearly 7 billion dollars today.
Krueger, a textile engineer by trade, on orders of Heinrich Himmler, plucked various forgers, bank executives and fine artists from the death camps throughout the Reich. He then provided them with all the tools of their trades. The prisoners worked with the full awareness that they were marked for death when their job was over. After successfully duplicating the rather difficult pound note, the captives were assigned the even more difficult task of reproducing the American dollar.
With the German air force in serious trouble by 1943, the plan to drop the British pounds from the air to flood the English economy with the bogus notes had to be abandoned. Instead the Reich used the counterfeit money to pay for various espionage operations around the world. This had the desired effect of reeking havoc on the value of the British pound. The British had a blockade to prevent the phony money from entering England but Scotland Yard and Interpol were powerless to stop the Nazi scheme around the world.
In the film, a Nazi spy, trying to make sure early versions of the pound can pass muster takes them to a Swiss bank and demands they be scrutinized closely. To our surprise, he then demands the notes be sent to the Bank of England itself just to be certain. The bank actually writes a letter verifying the “authenticity” of the notes that Krueger reads aloud to the unit prisoners in the concentration camp. The group celebrates their "success" with a theatrical stage show.
Burger, the idealist in their ranks, confronts Sorowitsch with the rationale that although their work is keeping them alive it is on the other hand also funding the Nazi war machine and actually perpetuating their captivity by helping the Nazis to win the war. Burger demands that they sabotage their operations, something that Sorowitsch is violently opposed to as it threatens his very existence.
Sorowitsch is torn between self-preservation and self-destruction.
This moral dilemma is the focus of the film and becomes dramatically terrifying in its scope. Go along and live. Throw a monkey wrench into the operation and die immediately. (We see numerous examples of the Nazis brutality to forewarn us of the impending doom hovering over the unit members’ heads).
Splendidly acted and directed (but I must warn of an annoying score consisting of pan flute, accordion and violin), The Counterfeiters on one level is an extremely exciting espionage film based on recently uncovered historical documents. On another level the viewer is left alone to ponder, “What would I have done under the same conditions?”
Both levels leave the viewer plenty to think about. And at the end of the day, we are left with plenty to be thankful for.
The film opens February 22nd in New York and Los Angeles. In German with English subtitles.
A WGA screenwriter/producer/journalist based in Hollywood, California, Mark Groubert is the Senior Film and Book Reviewer for CrooksandLiars.com. As a filmmaker he has produced numerous documentaries for HBO. Groubert is also the former editor of National Lampoon Magazine, MTV Magazine and The Weekly World News. In addition, he currently writes for the L.A. Weekly, L.A. City Beat, Penthouse, High Times and other publications.