The Counterfeiters (15)

Morality forged in hell
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The Independent Culture

The title would incline you to believe it's a comedy, like The Ladykillers or The Producers, and the opening minutes of Austrian writer-director Stefan Ruzowitzky's film do play in a jaunty, if not quite jolly, key.

The war has just ended, and a shifty, gaunt-looking man checks into a deluxe Monte Carlo hotel; he spends the evening playing the tables and ends it in bed with a foxy young lady. Only when she spots the number tattooed on his arm does it dawn that this will not be a comedy after all. It is about a hideous struggle for life in the most appalling circumstances imaginable.

The man is Salomon Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics), who in 1936 was the toast of the Berlin underworld, a scoundrel, gambler and "king of counterfeiters". He has the talent of an artist, and the temperament of a con man – his fastidious craftsmanship enables him to forge banknotes, passports, documents, and as long as there's a market, black or otherwise, he'll adapt to it. The one thing he can't get away with is being a Jew, and when he's arrested and sent to Mauthausen concentration camp he soon realises that he's not there just for being a criminal. But Sorowitsch proves himself adaptable inside the abyss, and becomes a kind of court painter to the SS.

Stories of surviving the Holocaust tend to be remarkable by definition. This one, based on a memoir, The Devil's Workshop, has something more: a genuine moral tension. It has the force of Schindler's List without the heroic intervention of a Schindler. Sorowitsch, based on a Russian Jewish artist and forger named Salomon Smolianoff, is relocated from Mauthausen in 1944 to the camp at Sachsenhausen, where his talents are exploited in a massive counterfeit operation designed by the Nazis to flood the enemy economy. In barracks separated from the rest of the camp Sorowitsch and other hand-picked prisoners – former printers, graphic artists, typographers – are put to work forging banknotes so perfect that they will escape the most stringent examination. (The pound notes they fake apparently hoodwink even the Bank of England.)

The reward for their labours is clean bed linen, running water, decent food and, most importantly, the privilege of not being exposed to life "out there". Should they fail in their task, however, the gas chambers await. Sorowitsch tries to blank out the sounds coming from the other side of the wall – the everyday routines of shooting and torture – and most of the time succeeds. "One adapts or dies," he tells a fellow prisoner.

Yet even Sorowitsch cannot remain blind forever to the devil's pact the counterfeiters have entered: he knows by their skills they are helping to prop up the Reich's bankrupt economy and prolong the Nazi war effort. And what if Germany is victorious? It is all too likely that the counterfeiters will be killed like other Jews once their usefulness is at an end.

The film points up the grotesque moral quandary Sorowitsch and the others face. It begins as soon as they arrive at the camp and are provided with civilian clothes – too bad they come attached with labels from their former owners, murdered Jews in Auschwitz. One of the prisoners, Burger (August Diehl, who has the haunted eyes of a young Christopher Walken) refuses to wear them, and later takes to sabotaging the production of bogus dollar bills. He, unlike Sorowitsch, cannot ignore his conscience.

When the Nazis reward the counterfeiters for their work, they give them a ping-pong table, and as the inmates play they hear the sounds of others being murdered.

Ruzowitzky renders vividly the experience of living half-in, half-outside the inferno. One of the most telling sequences involves Sorowitsch being summoned to the house of the Nazi officer Herzog (Devid Striesow) in charge of the counterfeit scam, and then introduced to the man's wife and children. The domestic normality looks weirdly, obscenely alien.

By now the war is coming to an end, and Herzog wants Sorowitsch to provide false passports for him and his family, and the tables seem to be turning. The Nazi remarks, half-admiringly, of the artist's talent: "Tricks and fakery – that's what you Jews are good at!" – yet absolutely fails to see the monstrous scale of his own lies. Perhaps a more subtle point about fakery is being made, in that only a man so used to institutionalised deception could so completely deceive himself.

Sorowitsch, a severe pragmatist, knows he can survive by acting in his own interest. When he is at Mauthausen he spots in the corner of his eye the half-eaten apple of a German guard whose portrait he's sketching. There's a sudden diversion, and when the camera looks back the apple is gone. Yet Markovics embodies Sorowitsch, for all his Darwinian thinking, as a sympathetic character. His slightly rodenty demeanour and narrow gaze invite suspicion, and our foreknowledge that he has taken a suitcaseful of money to Monte Carlo after the war is open to ambiguity.

Yet his character is more complicated than it first seems. In the cattle truck to Sachsenhausen he gives a starving fellow prisoner his soup, and later bribes his Nazi master to procure medicine to save the life of the same man, now stricken with tuberculosis.

It is said that the real-life forger, Smolianoff, did not take part in the sabotage of Operation Bernhard, as the counterfeit operation was known, and given that more than £130m was faked, it seems resistance was the exception rather than the rule; apart from Burger, it is not clear in the film which of the prisoners actually did risk their lives by delaying production. This parable of fakery and compromise asks the most difficult question: how much would you be willing to sacrifice in the interest of your own survival? And how grateful do you feel that you will probably never have to answer it?