Thursday, September 8, 2011

SHOULD I READ IT? The Counterfeiters

     “The Counterfeiters” is a war movie made in Germany and released in 2007. It was directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky. It is based on a memoir by Holocaust survivor Adolf Burger entitled The Devil’s Workshop. It is a true story revolving around the S.S. forging operation called “Operation Bernhard”.

Operation Bernard
     The main character is Salomon “Sally” Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics) who is a successful forger in Berlin before the war. He gets arrested and is sentenced to a concentration camp where his artistic ability gets him a job as a painter. After five years, the cop who originally arrested him gets him transferred to Sachsenhausen to participate in a secret counterfeiting operation called “Operation Bernhard”. Friedrich Herzog (Devid Striesow) is now an S.S. officer who is in charge of the counterfeiting the British pound note to help finance the Nazi war effort and cause economic problems in England. The skilled Jews are given special treatment by Herzog as an incentive to get the job done. They are also separated from the rest of the camp.

Adolf Burger (August Deihl)

     Sally quickly discovers that the survival of the entire group depends on results. Since survival is the main goal of all inmates and the treatment is good, there would seem to be no conflict. However, Sally inconveniently develops a conscience whereas he had previously been a narcissist. In two separate incidents he saves inmates from being shot. He helps perfect the pound and Herzog rewards the men with a ping pong table. Herzog moves them on to forging the dollar and Sally sees this as his greatest challenge. Plus creation of the dollar means survival for them all.

      Sally’s friendship with Adolf Burger (August Diehl) complicates matters. Burger correctly deduces that “Operation Bernhard” is helping the Nazi war effort. If the Nazis win the war and they have helped, that is worse than surviving. He tries to convince Sally to sabotage the dollar effort. Sally does not completely come over to his view, but does delay the completion until it’s too late for Germany. With the Russians just down the road, the Nazis pull out, abandoning the camp. Sally catches Herzog trying to leave with thousands of dollars he has hidden. Sally beats him up, but lets him go – without the money.

     “The Counterfeiters” is an admirably accurate film. Burger served as technical adviser on the film and was very hands-on.. “Operation Bernhard” is considered the largest counterfeiting operation in history. It was headed by Bernhard Kruger (Herzog in the film). Kruger was apparently a relatively benevolent Nazi as depicted in the film. (Striesow plays him as a yuppie who is more concerned with money than ideology.) He was not condemned for war crimes after the war and actually had several of the forgers testify on his behalf (although Burger insists he was a murderer). Obviously Burger’s character is true to life and so is Sorowitsch. The acting is outstanding, especially by Diehl and Markovics.

     This is not your typical Holocaust movie. The Jews are treated much better than we are used to seeing and although there is always the threat of violence, it seldom materializes. Even the rebellious Burger does not face the consequences of his sabotaging. The movie is suspenseful and thought provoking with its theme of conscience versus survival, but it does not truly explore this theme. This is the rare case of an historical movie where I would argue it would have been better if it had veered from the facts for dramatic effect. The truth is that the forgers know that the Allies are going to win the war so they know perfecting the dollar will have no impact on who wins. For this reason, there is no real conflict between survival and helping the Nazis. They can delay the finished product, but they never have to make the ultimate decision whether to complete the project. The movie would have had a stronger punch if it had left this knowledge of Germany’s situation out and fully debated whether survival under these circumstances was justified.



  1. I did not like it. Maybe it is good but that's not the type of movie I enjoy. I didn't like the main character and found the movie stayed on the surface.
    In German I would say it was "verzichtbar"- Had to look that up - it means "expendable".

  2. I think you mean "forgetable". I'm surprised you did not like it. The main character is not likable, but I think that is part of the appeal - he is not your typical hero. I much preferred Adolf. Diehl is a fascinating actor. I need to see more by him.

  3. I thought it was a superb movie. Very thought provoking and testament to the skill and ingenuity of a group of people who had to perform a seemingly impossible task under incredible pressure. Failure was not an option. They either succeeded or died. It's incredibly well filmed, gritty, very dark, and easily deserved an Oscar. The actors were superb too, and it vividly documents an extraordinary episode during a very dark period of human history. Truly a fabulous movie...

  4. Agree. It's movies like this that make me thankful that I started watching foreign movies as part of this blog.


Please fell free to comment. I would love to hear what you think and will respond.