The Counterfeiters (2008) dir. Stefan Ruzowitzky
Starring:Karl Markovics, August Diehl, Devid Striesow, Martin Brambach
“The Counterfeiters” was the Best Foreign Language Film winner at this year’s Oscars. It’s a true story of a group of concentration camp prisoners in WWII who survive the horrors of the Holocaust by making counterfeit money for the Nazis. It’s a story of personal survival amidst the most harrowing of historical events that unfortunately suffers for missing its opportunities to be a 'great' film, instead of just a 'good' film.
Salomon Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics) is introduced in post-war Monte Carlo, gambling, and whoring his life away. Though he's winning with ease, he's not happy. After a night with a beautiful girl, entranced only by his money, she notices his concentration camp tatoo on his arm. This piece of information sends us back to the War to show how Sorowitsch survived the Holocaust.
Sorowitsch was one of the most famous forgers in Europe, he made an unscrupulous living falsifying passports for whoever had the money to pay. But once the war starts, Sorowitsch, like all Jews under German occupation is imprisoned in a concentration camp. Sorowitsch witnesses and is subject to the imaginable brutalities of the concentration camp and vows to survive at all costs. Sorowitsch's expertise becomes a valued asset and he soon finds himself leading a group of forgers with varying skills counterfeiting British Pounds and American Dollars to fund the Nazis' last ditch war effort. The group find solace in their work, but when another member of the team, Burger (August Diehl) objects to the immorality of working for the Nazi cause moral conflicts compound on each other threatening everyone's lives.
The strength of the film is the fundamental and confounding moral question of 'what you do to survive?' Before Burger raised his ethical hand, Sorowitsch thought he knew the answer to this question. But the heart of Ruzowitky's film is how Sorowitsch reconcile's these internal and external conflicts.
By tackling the Holocaust Stefan Ruzowitzky is automatically pitting himself against the great films that have come before it. “The Counterfeiters” is a good film, and perhaps deserves more than 2 1/2 stars, but considering the subject matter and the potential the materials presents, I must dock large points for each opportunity missed.
The cinematography bothered me – so much so, I literally couldn’t look past it. Ruzowitzky and DOP Benedict Neuenfels shoot the film with a blanket of grain it’s actually very difficult to see the detail in the film. They also employ an unnecessary handheld swishing camera technique that doesn’t fit the material. The result is something akin to Alejandro González Iñárritu’s stylized “21 Grams”. The style worked to enhance the grittiness of Iñárritu’s story, but for the Holocaust, the subject does not require such enhancement.
As well, we barely get to see the detail of how the counterfeiters created such perfect recreations of currency. Salomon Sorowitsch was such an artist with his work we needed to see the details of his craftsmanship to truly appreciate the timeconsuming work being done. Like Col. Nicholson is "Bridge Over the River Kwai", seeing the details he obsesses over makes his eventual redemption even more powerful. But with the distracting fuzzy cinematography the preciseness of Sorowitsch's work is lost and with it another layer of internal conflict.
It's a shame to critique a film of such compelling real life subject matter on the basis of its camera technique, but it's also a shame for the director to distract us away from his story with an unnecessary artifice.
The final on screen text frustrated me even more, when we learn that the Counterfeiters' work in the film was the largest counterfeiting operation in history. That took me by surprise because this scope never got across on screen. The most amount of money we see at one time is a handful of dollar bills. Again this is a missed opporuntity for Ruzowitztky to show us the scale of the operation instead of telling us – and at the end of the film.
"The Counterfeiters" is a good film, but I just can't help what could have been...a shame. Enjoy.