Salomon “Sally” Sorowitsch sits alone on a beach in Monte Carlo dressed in a shabby suit and cradling a suitcase. The waves crash over a newspaper that reads, “The war is over!” Sally rises and ascends the steps, passing vagrants and a street vendor peddling silver. He strolls into the most luxurious hotel he can find. The clerk takes a look at him and asks for an advance on the stay. But a peak inside the suitcase shows a change of old clothes piled on neat stacks of twenty dollar bills. The rest of the money is shoveled into the vault, peeled off for a fancy tuxedo, or plunked down at a swanky casino.
The message is clear, Sally isn’t what he appears. A fake. A phony. Because Sally isn’t like the street salesman pushing stolen silver on pedestrians. He’s a higher class of criminal. Sally is a counterfeiter.
A flashback to 1936 shows Sally schmoozing with the upper echelon, a successful forger of passports and currency. But he’s soon caught by the police and taken to a labor camp before being transported to a concentration camp at the start of the second World War.
The Counterfeiters is based on the true story of Operation Bernhard, a secret counterfeit plan by the Nazis involving slave Jewish forgers creating false currency to destabilize the economies of the Allies. It won the Academy Award for “Best Foreign Language Film” just six months ago and already it seems forgotten or overlooked on DVD this week. Too much emphasis was put this past year on the foreign movies that were omitted rather than this engaging and original winner.
Front and center is the subtle, masterful performance of Karl Markovichs. But perhaps most skillful is the direction by Stefan Ruzowitzky, whose hand-held, fly-on-the-wall camerawork lets the audience feel like they’re a member of the operation, living the dilemmas with the other prisoners.
Like most holocaust movies, it’s a survivor story. But with the extra privileges ultimately award to them for their artful craftsmanship, the counterfeiters are sheltered away from the atrocities in the rest of the camp. Somehow just the sounds of unspeakable torture are more powerful than the sights.
Soon Sally is asked to counterfeit the U.S. dollar, something he wasn’t able to accomplish on his own. But he’s faced with another first, putting the well-being of others before himself. Torn between his fellow captives who want to fabricate delays to slow progress and the nearby likelihood of certain death, Sally must decide to put his life or the lives of the resistance in jeopardy.
With an anti-hero like Sally and a morally ambiguous story, the film lets the audience decide what they believe is right or how they would have reacted in such a horrific situation. Could you sacrifice another to save your life? Or would your conscience weigh on that decision forever?
The end reveals that, like Sally, the opening scene isn’t what it seems.
4.5 out of 5.