In 1936, Salomon Sally Sorowitsch (Markovics) is arrested for forgery and sent to Mauthausen concentration camp. Eight years later he is transferred to Sachsenhausen to head up historys biggest counterfeiting operation - part of a Nazi plan to destabil
Taken at face value, The title The Counterfeiters makes this German/Austrian movie sound like a jaunty crime caper, in which a wily forger and his gang race around Europe, forever a step ahead of the frustrated authorities.
On the surface, the opening minutes support this: our protagonist Sally Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics) arrives in Monte Carlo carrying a briefcase stacked with crisp banknotes. He hits the tables, strikes gold and ends the night with a gorgeous floozy in his bed. Yet something is amiss. Our anti-hero himself is silent and distant, sagging where there should be swagger. And the key to his incongruous impassivity is a set of numbers tattooed on his forearm.
Writer/director Stefan Ruzowitzky could have kept the title of the non-fiction book on which this is based: The Devil’s Workshop. It’s certainly more sombre (it could even be mistaken for a horror, which isn’t entirely inappropriate), and perhaps chimes better with the story, told in flashback, of a group of concentration camp inmates spared the gas chamber so long as they forge sterling and dollars for their Nazi oppressors.
But despite the setting, Ruzowitzky’s movie does play more like an adventure movie. It’s a good move. Rather than tainting the material with irreverence, his decision gives The Counterfeiters a robust dramatic drive and thrilling pace as Sally, rendered with a suave charm and stiletto-edged ruthlessness by Markovics, has to balance his own instinct for survival with the moral conundrum of the forgers’ situation: the better their work, the more they help the Nazis; the worse job they do, the more likely they are to see the inside of the gas chamber. It’s with a mix of relief and guilt that Sally and his cohorts settle into their Golden Cage - they have comfy beds and even a ping-pong table - but on the other side of the iron fence behind which they’re carefully concealed, they can clearly hear the atrocities being suffered by their fellow inmates. Meanwhile, they all know that their time will run out: once they pull off the big scam - the almighty dollar - they’ll be surplus to Nazi requirements.
Ruzowitzky accordingly ramps up the tension, but all the while he’s careful to respect the harsh reality in which his thoughtful movie is firmly rooted.
A sharp and compelling war drama that delivers on the promise of its astonishing true-life origins.