The Counterfeiters
Counterfeiting money is even harder wearing Mickey Mouse gloves.

Theatrical Release Date: 03/22/2007 (Germany), 02/22/2008 (USA)
Director: Stefan Ruzowitzky
Cast: Karl Markovics, August Diehl, Devid Striesow

Taking home the Academy Award last month for best foreign language film was Germany’s “The Counterfeiters”. The true story of the largest counterfeiting operation the world has ever seen, it’s the tale of a Jewish master forger sent to the concentration camps in WWII Germany. As the German war machine begins to falter, partially due to a lack of funds, they hope to rely on the work of their prisoners to regain their military might.

A setup like this prepares you for a very grim look at one of the darkest periods in human history. After seeing more than my share of holocaust related cinema, I know how to brace my senses for what should have appeared on-screen. However, in the context of films dealing with such visceral and harrowing material, “The Counterfeiters” is remarkably free of doom and gloom.

Don’t take that the wrong way. I’m not making light of any of the events depicted in the film or the despicable acts perpetrated by the Nazis are unfathomable. However, director Stefan Ruzowitzky failed/succeeded in maintaining some lightness to the film from beginning to end (whether it’s failure or success depends on his intent and I would rather have the traditionally dark and dismal tale over what came about).

Right as the music starts during the opening credit sequence, it carries a sort-of upbeat or quirky tone. This music will be revisited upon the film throughout and just didn’t match up for the expected weight a story like this usually carries.

Also, at the beginning, we are shown a man enjoying the high life at a casino in Monte Carlo, flashing all sorts of cash. Through a brief exchange of words with the beautiful woman he’s just had sex with the night before, the story flashes back to 1936 Germany.

This means that the audience already knows he will live through any and all of the horrors the Nazis will end up imposing on him. While the filmmakers decided this was the way to go, I think it lessens the impact a film can make. Part of what allows audiences to connect to characters like this is a certain level of uncertainty to the outcome. As you become attached to the person, their hardships are able to touch your humanity that much more.

Getting back to the premise of the film, we learn that the main character (Salomon Sorowitsch) is a master counterfeiter, living the good life as one should when you can actually make money. After getting busted by an anti-counterfeiting police squad, he is shipped off to a concentration camp. As a career conman, he quickly sees his artistic talent as a way to gain favor with the Nazi guards.

This doesn’t go unnoticed to people higher up the Third Reich’s pecking order and he’s shipped to another camp where a massive undertaking is to be attempted. The Nazis hope to print and airdrop so much counterfeit British currency onto England as to destabilize their economy.

But as Sorowitsch’s forgeries prove so good as to fool the Bank of England itself, the Nazis shift gears and decide to use his talents to fund the war effort. Now he and his fellow prisoners are to copy the American dollar as well. What follows is the struggle to decide what’s more important: saving your own life or helping to bring down the Nazi war effort knowing that if you’re caught, the penalty is a certain and quick death.

All of the acting in the film is excellent and watching Sorowitsch adapt to his situation is quite interesting. He is at first interested only in saving his own skin but as he forms attachments to his fellow counterfeiters, Sorowitsch learns to use the power he wields (as an indisposable asset to the Nazis) to help not only himself but those around him.

In looking at it from that standpoint, “The Counterfeiters” is a success. However, as a result of the decisions made by the filmmakers that I’ve already touched upon, the film felt strangely hollow. There didn’t seem to be that sense of weight or gravitas one might expect.

To paraphrase a line from Gina Gershon about her experience making “Showgirls”, thinking that working with director Paul Verhoeven would be dark and artistic – it’s like going to a serious musician’s concert and finding Britney Spears on-stage.

Chalk some of it up to higher expectations if a film is going to take home the Oscar (though that award is exponentially losing it’s credibility with me) and my own ability to stomach grittier looks at this vile example of “humanity” but I just thought the film lacked that extra something that would elevate it above the many others in its genre. A 3 out of 5, there’s nothing technically wrong with “The Counterfeiters” and if you had been interested in checking it out, please do so. It is worth a little of your time and money.