False notes

Not to be confused with André Gide’s novel of the same name, The Counterfeiters (which won the Oscar for best foreign-language film this year) is a flawed but fascinating film about a Nazi plot to flood the Allied economies with bogus banknotes.

Stefan Ruzowitzky’s tale is fascinating because the material is so rich in dramatic potential, lifting the lid on a clandestine scheme in which a disparate group of concentration-camp inmates were corralled into propping up the German war effort. And it is flawed because the moral implications of this scheme are so charged and turbulent that they defy neat resolution. If the film’s inhabitants are walking a tightrope, it occasionally seems that its writer-director is too.

Karl Markovics stars as Sally Sorowitsch, a Jewish forger who is put in charge of a bunch of former printers, graphic artists and financiers and set to work making pound notes and dollar bills. The counterfeiters regard themselves as a cut above their fellow prisoners. The Holocaust is unfolding behind a plywood fence and yet here they are with clean sheets on their beds and a ping-pong table in their yard. They reminded me a little of the pampered rabbits in Watership Down, who are allowed to gorge themselves on fresh lettuce on the understanding that they turn a collective blind eye when the farmer decides he wants something new for the pot.

This is an ambitious account of institutionalised evil, buttressed by a terrific central performance from Markovics as the sullen survivor type. Its dehumanising environment can be read as a kind of corrupted Schindler’s List in which the success of the few could indirectly lead to the death of countless others. Yes, the director is implicitly asking us to judge these men in their gilded cage. But he mercifully provides no pat answers or cheap moralising. The situation is too desperate and compromising for that.

He makes just a few missteps along the way. Ruzowitzky’s tight focus on the forgers’ operation means that the Holocaust risks being relegated to the role of the bogeyman under the bed: a looming horror that is referred to in whispers but never dragged into the light. Then there is the character of Burger (August Diehl), the communist firebrand who serves as the camp’s conscience. It is Burger who realises the consequences of collaboration and exhorts the others to resist.

Just who is Burger, exactly? In real life it transpires that the man is Jewish too (in fact, he is still alive, and wrote the memoir on which the film is based). And yet his screen incarnation appears more confusing. Crucially, we are told that Burger was sent to the camps for printing anti-Nazi propaganda, raising the possibility that he is being persecuted for his political beliefs as opposed to his race. Was it wise for Ruzowitzky to leave this possibility hanging, this suggestion that it took a saintly gentile to whip the Jewish inmates into shape? The Counterfeiters remains a tough, clear-eyed, provocative piece of work. But that one wobble almost casts it into the abyss. —

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