It was this kind of skill set that was required for survival.

The Counterfeiters

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis

            Don’t try to turn off your emotions in “The Counterfeiters.” It’s easy to say that this is the story of the largest counterfeiting operation in history; easy too, to add that it was set up by the Nazis in 1936 to soak and destroy the British economy with fake pounds while defraying the cost of the Nazi war machine. Nearly easy still, to report that the whole thing unfolds in a Nazi concentration camp where the counterfeiters are given the space and equipment to do their job.

            What isn’t easy by any measure is watching the things that run along under the surface and tear these men apart. These prisoners, with their music, food, clean beds, and water, are within faint earshot of the regular prisoners who are being gassed, shot, beaten, and starved. Because of their skills, they stay alive while the others die; to make it worse, their daily work, exquisitely exacting, contributes to the enemy effort.

            The leader of this team is Salomon Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics), formerly a carefree and successful counterfeiter in pre-war Berlin. He is arrested by detective Friedrich Herzog (David Striesow) – “It is an honor to arrest the world’s best counterfeiter” – and sent to the Mauthausen concentration camp where he survives by painting monumental portrait images of Nazi officers. Detective Herzog, now morphed into the SS officer in charge of the counterfeit project, Operation Bernhard, plucks Sorowitsch from the doomed men and assembles his team.

            Sally, as he is called, turns a face of stone to both his captors and fellow prisoners as he operates on an intuitive survival code: adapt, or die. Fueled by an expert’s pride, Sally turns out perfect pound notes, but the team’s success becomes just too much for some of the idealists to bear. Adolf Burger (August Diehl), begins a subtle sabotage of the notes as Burger and Sally become the focus of the conflict between idealism and reality.

            When humiliation and brutality and indignity are poured on Sally or his men, he maintains his face of stone but goes off alone to let his fury out in physical rage at anything inanimate that is close at hand. Both SS officer Herzog and Sorowitsch are conniving survivors. Herzog is a man, empty and ordinary, who is given sudden power in an atmosphere of grotesque abuse. With great respect for Sorowitsch and disgust for Herzog, we watch the skills of adaptation save many men at the hand of one and destroy many at the hand of the other. In Sally, Karl Markovics creates a complex man who is a shrewd gambler, a risk taker rather than of a hero. It was this kind of skill set that was required for survival – of himself and of his peers. There was no room for conventional heroics in a concentration camp. Perhaps the real question is how anyone who survived this kind of cruelty and barbarity ever again experienced pleasure without pain.


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