On the face of it, there doesn’t seem to be all that much to get about The Counterfeiters, yet another bleak, grungy film set in a death camp in the waning days of World War II.
Salomon Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics) is a master counterfeiter plying his trade in Berlin on the eve of the war. One of the best forgers in the game—if not the best—his eye for detail still misses that his fellow Jews are being disappeared around him. Although as an ex-pat Russian Jew, he doesn’t quite get that he’s part of that fellowship.
Inevitably, Salomon is sent off to one of the concentration camps springing up all over Germany and spreading like disease to the occupied territories. He settles in well enough, adapting his skills to paint motivational murals and family portraits for the base officers in exchange for his continued existence and bread crumbs.
Flash forward five years, and Sally is being sent off to another camp to be part of Operation Bernhard, a nefarious Nazi plan to cripple the American and British economies by flooding them with counterfeit banknotes. He joins a select group, the best of the printing and banking trades, in a barracks with comfy beds, a ping-pong table and a commandant who is prone to handing out cigarettes.
And so it goes … the group spends its days dealing with the internal struggle of ostensibly helping the Nazi war effort against the reality of just trying to live to see another day. One more day that just might dawn with the end of the war and their liberation.
The Counterfeiters is a compelling drama, well-crafted in a vérité style and supported with nuanced performances, but … seen it before. The tropes set into place go as far back as 1953’s Stalag 17, and are trotted out and put into place without bringing anything new to the table.
As the final reel brings closure (of sorts), one is still left asking, “And?” Why was there a compelling need to document this Based on a True Story? And why did it go on to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film? The Counterfeiters is good, but not that good.
Ultimately, despite the triumph-of-the-human-spirit aspect, The Counterfeiters is just plain dispiriting. I suppose that as a society we use these types of things as a “Never Again!” amulet. But the dispiriting counterpoint being that as such ensuing events as the Stanford Prison Experiment and Abu Ghraib show, they’re maybe not all that effective.