Earlier this year The Lives of Others caused quite a stir with its depiction of life in Stasi-era East Germany, winning an Oscar and near-unanimous critical acclaim, but not everyone was convinced of that picture's merits. I certainly appreciated the film's classy direction and strong performances, but beneath the glossy surface it boiled down to a too-neat morality play which never really caught fire. Austrian director Stefan Ruzowitzky is the latest filmmaker to examine a painful part of German history – the most painful of all, in fact – and The Counterfeiters strikes me as a film which lives up to the promises The Lives of Others made and failed to keep. Ruzowitzky's film is rougher around the edges, and more ambiguous in its approach, and the film is all the better for it.
We first meet Salomon "Sally" Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics) in post-war Monte Carlo, carrying a bag full of cash and winning plenty more at the card tables in his own quiet and enigmatic way. He catches the eye of a glamorous woman and takes her back to his hotel room, but she is startled by the telltale number tattooed on his arm, and this discovery sends Salomon into a flashback which then comprises the rest of the movie. Why do filmmakers continue to open pictures in this way? As in last year's Black Book, the decision to bookend the main drama with contemporary sequences allows us to relax just a little, safe in the knowledge that the lead character will survive whatever situations they subsequently find themselves in. This lessening of the tension is a misguided move when a film is set in a time and place where death is constantly around the corner.
When the film does jump back to Berlin in 1936, Salomon appears as a very different character indeed. He's a playboy, enjoying a decadent lifestyle which has been paid for by his skilful forgery, and he seems unconcerned by the pervading political climate. When someone asks him for his thoughts on what the Nazis are doing to "his people", he gives the flippant reply "I am me, and the others are the others". Despite his outward nonchalance he is planning to flee Berlin in the very near future, but he doesn't get the chance to do so, as he is arrested by the fraud squad led by a man named Herzog (Devid Striesow). Salomon is despatched to the Mauthausen concentration camp where he suffers stoically through the expected hardships – but in an echo of Polanski's The Pianist, the prisoner's artistry acts as his salvation.
The discovery of Salomon's drawing ability impresses the soldiers, and the man who hastily sketched this image can hardly believe his luck. Salomon finds himself in demand as various German officers sit for portraits, and he even finds himself being employed to paint a huge Nazi mural on one of the camp walls, with his rations of food and the promise of relative safety being all the motivation he needs. His talent then leads to his transfer to Sachsenhausen, another camp where he comes face-to-face with Herzog – now a captain – and is given a vital role in 'Operation Bernhard'. Salomon and a few similarly skilled prisoners are given comfortable surroundings and plenty of food as they set to work on producing counterfeit money for the Nazi regime. The plan was to destabilise the British economy by flooding it with millions of pounds worth of fake sterling and, when that had been accomplished, to move onto the dollar – the currency which Salomon was desperately trying to crack when he was arrested.
At this point the key moral quandary which drives The Counterfeiters is revealed. Salomon and his team can ensure their own survival by giving the Nazis the counterfeit money they need, but can they live with themselves when that money is being used to support the German war effort? What are their own lives worth against the lives of fellow Jews who are being destroyed by the regime they are currently collaborating with? The Counterfeiters has been adapted by Ruzowitzky from the memoirs of Adolf Burger – played by August Diehl, who gives a terrific performance – and his character acts as a counterpoint to self-preservation attitude favoured by Salomon. For Burger, there is no honour to be found in survival if it means selling one's soul to the Nazi war machine.
Ruzowitzky lets both points of view play out in a gripping, tightly constructed drama which is richly atmospheric and is generally told with a lack of sensationalism. His use of the camera and the impressive production design emphasises the sense of claustrophobia, and in a very effective move the horrors of the Holocaust are impressed upon us through mere glimpses or sounds (it's a pity he didn't lose the intrusive score completely). Even in the relative comfort of their barracks, Salomon and the rest of the forgers can often hear the sound of less fortunate prisoners being beaten and killed outside. On the occasions when we do see a German soldier murdering a Jew, we see it as if peering through a window or door, and these exposures to the inhumanity of the camps eventually take their toll on Salomon. This pragmatic figure gradually begins to widen his viewpoint beyond his own survival and he learns, for the first time, to consider the lives of others.
Karl Markovics is perfectly cast as Salomon. With his long, austere face and sunken cheeks, he offers a chilly characterisation at first, but he proves to be a strangely magnetic guide through the horrific landscape of the camps. Markovics reveals unexpected depths and emotions to the character in brief and carefully rationed moments, and we come to know his character almost as he comes to learn more about himself. Another exceptional performance which deserves praise comes from Devid Striesow as Herzog, the man who initially sent Salomon to the camps and then – by bringing him into the forgery operation – helped to save his life. Striesow gives a complex and finely drawn performance as this ambiguous figure, a man who was put on trial for war crimes after the conflict was ended, but who was set free after a number of the counterfeiters testified on his behalf. Ruzowitzky and his actors do a superb job of detailing the strange relationship – complicit yet antagonistic – which existed between these men.
The final fifteen minutes are compelling and evocative, but they feel a little rushed. The collapse of the camp, the departure of the Germans, and the first, tentative steps towards freedom for the prisoners are played out in a haunting fashion. The well-fed and healthy-looking counterfeiters encounter the skeletal captives who have suffered terribly in the rest of the camp, and Ruzowitzky gives us a moving sequence in which they sit together and listen to music, the emaciated prisoners staring into space like ghosts. After that, the short coda which rejoins Salomon in Monte Carlo feels a little unnecessary and flat, but the film has more than served its purpose by this point. The Counterfeiters is a taut and authentic picture which grips through its fascinating true story, but which also has the intelligence to pose some tough and thorny questions regarding the nature of courage, sacrifice and the importance of a single man's actions when held against a wider context. Wisely, The Counterfeiters doesn't attempt to offer any definitive answer to the dilemmas posed by the events it depicts; after all, without experiencing first-hand the pressures and horrors of a situation such as this, who could honestly say how they would react?