“One must adapt or they die,” Salomon Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics) reasons to others in Austrian writer/director Stefan Ruzowitzky’s The Counterfeiters. The most recent recipient for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award, the film was based on the book by Adolf Burger which told the true story of Burger (played by August Diehl), Sorowitsch, and other Jewish former printers, photographers, and bankers involved against their will in Operation Bernhard, the largest governmental counterfeit program in history run out of the concentration camp Sachsenhausen in order to help finance the Nazi’s war efforts.
Although it’s bookended with events set after the war ends and Sorowitsch journeys out of the camp, Ruzowitzky’s moving film gets us fully invested in the narrative as Sorowitsch, the successful and naturally gifted counterfeiter-- a likable scoundrel to most whom he meets-- is arrested by Friedrich Herzog (Devid Striesow). The two men’s paths would cross again in even crueler circumstances after Sorowitsch is moved from Mauthausen Concentration Camp where his artistic skill or more accurately gift for portraiture made him a favorite painter among the Nazi officers to Sachsenhausen where Herzog, who received a promotion from his prestigious arrest of Sorowitsch, has been put in charge of the counterfeiting program to give the Nazis some much needed capital in their war. While morally outraged by the position they’ve been placed in with their new occupation being to help fund the men who murdered their families and condescendingly bribed with soft beds and a ping-pong table, the men are forced to put their experience to use.
Intriguingly Ruzowitzky’s illuminating film which offers a much different view of the horrific events of World War II by focusing on an operation of which few of us had been exposed also explores the humanity and conflict among the counterfeiters as one sees no point in going on having lost everything that mattered to him, another resents having to work with a criminal like Sorowitsch, and Burger employs a resistance tactic to stall and sabotage in order not to use his skills for Nazi gain.
With a running time of less than one hundred minutes, this taut, suspenseful and emotionally rich offering which was also nominated for six German Film Awards (and recipient of one for Striesow’s supporting performance) avoids getting lost in the World War II movie shuffle by offering viewers a new look at the war in bringing this fascinating and true tale to light.