I’m not sure if I really think Stefan Ruzowitzky’s The Counterfeiters is the best foreign-language film of last year, but the only other possible choice for me, J.A. Bayona’s The Orphanage, just isn’t Oscar material—especially when put up against a fact-based story involving Nazis and concentration camps. (The Academy always gives bonus points for this—only this time, they’re probably right.) Ruzowitzky’s film is certainly a worthy one—and an entertaining, intelligent one—anchored to one of the most mesmerizing performances I’ve seen in a while.
The film’s star, Karl Markovics, is not an actor I’d ever heard of or seen before. He’s also about the most unlikely looking movie star imaginable. Some reviewers have likened his crooked-nosed visage to a ferret and that’s an apt enough description, but it fails to take into account the way in which Markovics manages to become almost appealing over the course of the film—in spite of his looks and the fact that he’s not playing a wholly likeable character.
Markovics plays Salomon “Sally” Sorowitsch, a largely amoral forger who finds himself arrested on counterfeiting charges in 1936 Berlin and is sent to a concentration camp. The film has him transferred to a camp where his special talents are put to use in a plan to destroy the British and U.S. economies by flooding the market with undetectable counterfeit money. That’s more or less true, but the film adds its own historically specious but dramatically sound irony by turning camp commandant and former engineer Bernhard Krueger into Friedrich Herzog (Devid Striessow)—the very policeman who arrested Sorowitsch in the first place. The change bolsters the drama—especially in that both Sorowitsch and Herzog are opportunists of the highest order, each willing to do whatever it takes to survive.
That theme—what a person will do to survive—is at the center of the The Counterfeiters, and is what gives the film its particular power. Indeed, the complexities of the relationships that form this aspect of the drama are so strongly sketched in that the addition of the Sorowitsch-Herzog conflict almost seems like gilding the lily. There’s quite enough drama without it, especially concerning Sorowitsch’s relationship with anti-Nazi idealist printer Adolf Burger (August Diehl), whose determination not to help the Nazis threatens not only his own existence, but others as well. The two hold distinctly different points of view. In Sorowitsch’s eyes the only way to beat the Nazis is to survive (“I won’t give them the pleasure of being ashamed to be alive”), while Burger is ready to be martyred for the cause. (Neither Sorowitsch nor the viewer is quite sure that martyrdom isn’t simply what Burger wants.) Yet, Sorowitsch adheres to a code that won’t allow him to inform on a fellow inmate.
Even when the film treads perilously close to manipulative sentimentality—as in Sorowitsch’s relationship with a doomed young artist (Sebastian Urzendowsky) that is designed to humanize Sorowitsch—it manages to skirt the pitfall, not in the least because it doesn’t quite play to expectations. For that matter, the film’s framing story, with Sorowitsch seeming to attempt to expiate the “sin” of his very survival by gambling away his perfect counterfeit dollars, dodges the cliché at the last moment. We can never be quite certain of Sorowitsch’s actual motives and inner feelings—nor, to judge from Markovics’ brilliant performance, can Sorowitsch himself. That’s the beauty of the film and its near greatness. Rated R for some strong violence, brief sexuality/nudity and language.