There’s no questioning the competency of the makers of The Counterfeiters. A film so done can only be considered both a masterpiece and timeless. The questions it poses to its viewers are so harsh, one can’t help but walk away from a viewing feeling humbled, and a little disheartened. This shouldn’t deter you from viewing this cinematic genius, it should, in fact, compel you to watch it.
The story of The Counterfeiters is based on the true account of a group of Jewish internees at some of the most famous concentration camps known. They are all experts in their fields of printing, and counterfeiting. The SS recruits these men to participate in the single largest counterfeiting operation in the history of mankind. Before his ‘recruitment’ into Mauthausen, ‘Sally’ Sorowitsch (played by Karl Markovics) was the worlds greatest counterfeiter, only failing when he attempted to recreate the US dollar. He leads the group of disheartened Jews in their attempt to first recreate the perfect British pound, and then the dollar.
The story is compelling in and of itself. Markovics is one hundred percent believable. Almost painfully so. But one has to contemplate the significance and morality of continually making movies about the holocaust. The phrase, ‘lest we forget’ serves as an important reminder that we should never slip the darkest parts of history into places where we’ll forget them, but there is a certain ethical responsibility when seeking to earn profits off such a terrible story. Director Stefan Ruzowitsky never forgot that exploitation of this tragedy would be inexcusable, and the emphasis should be put where it’s need: in the memory of those who suffered.
The filming style was extremely interesting. The camera switched between steadycams, and those of the handheld variety. The quality of film alternated between clear, and crsip to an intensely grainy, shaky style. The latter emphasized the more barbaric situations, and important events in the plot, making it feel more real than most will be comfortable with. Ruzowitsky struck a perfect balance between showing the grotesque realities of war, and showing great restraint when it came to graphic moments. His mastery is found in the scenes were he’s able to make the viewer feel, and feel intensely, without resorting to cruel, on-screen violence. Of the many questions Ruzowitsky forced on his viewers, the most important and prominent was the struggle between self-preservation and sticking to ones morals. The inmates were again and again forced to choose between saving themselves, or helping the SS fund the Nazi war effort, make a statement, or meagerly live their sad lives. The worst part is, as a viewer, as someone who hasn’t experienced these horrific scenarios, you’ll be extremely conflicted as you put yourself in these situations. What would you have done?
Parts of the script (based on a book by Adolf Burger, and adapted for the screen by Ruzowitsky) were so subtly brilliant, they may go unnoticed: the irony of an SS agent who just urinated on an inmate being moved to tears by the voice of a ‘dirty Jew.’ A casual statement: ‘He was a Jew, but died like a man.’ A Jewish doctor, forced to choose who lives, and who dies because of a shortage of medicine. It’s completely astonishing, and one hundred percent compelling. Unlike many holocaust movies, the emphasis here was placed on the prisoners that survived the camps. The emotional climax of the film comes when those of the counterfeiting team who are well fed (so well fed, they’re mistaken for Nazis), sleeping in comfortable clean beds are brought together with those that experienced the full tragedy of the camps. The contrast is remarkable, and heart wrenching. It’s at this point that we’re reminded of the sentiments of holocaust survivors like Viktor Frankl who battled with the knowledge every day after the end of the war, that they only survived due to the sacrifices made by those around him.