Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Counterfeiters: Grade A

The Counterfeiters (2007)
Karl Markovics, August Diehl, Devid Striesow; Co-writer (screenplay) and Director Stefan Ruzowitzky. (German, subtitled).

I didn’t think there was anything left to say in film about World War II, especially not about Nazis Vs. Jews in the concentration camps, but this movie proves me wrong, for it is an original. A light fictionalization of a true story, adapted from a memoir of a surviving participant, this films tells the tale of master Jewish counterfeiters sent to Sachsenhausen, a concentration camp north of Berlin. Their job was to counterfeit British bank notes, which they did perfectly. Nazis posing as businessmen get experts and even the Bank of England to certify the authenticity of the notes. But as the surviving counterfeiter reveals in a DVD extra, there is an almost imperceptible difference between a Sachsenhausen and a genuine five-pound note. That’s a fascinating technicality that should have been in the movie. After the pound, the mission was to counterfeit the dollar, a much more difficult task requiring a tricky transfer process. The prisoners realize that if they are successful, they will prolong the war by damaging the American economy, and also that once they are successful, they will be shot. On the other hand, if they fail, they will be shot.

I would have liked a lot more detail on the counterfeiting processes, but this is really the story of how the prisoners survived, what stories they told themselves about what they were doing, and how they dealt with the knowledge that they were clean and well-fed while their families and friends were being gassed every day. The acting is superb but the writing is even better. When the prisoners arrive at the new camp, they are given civilian jackets to wear over their prison stripes. All eagerly put them on and the camera is on the two main characters when they notice the names of the dead victims from whom the jackets were taken, pinned to the sleeves. Salomon (“Sally”), the “whatever it takes to survive” leader, discards the name tag and puts on his coat. Burger (the young man who is the now-90 year old survivor who advised the director of the film), sees the name tag and drops the jacket to the concrete. He stands alone in his stripes among the men. Without a word of dialog, we understand oceans about these two characters. It’s brilliant screenplay writing.

The screenplay writer and director, Austrian Stefan Ruzowitzky says in an interview that he could not bear to do a traditional concentration camp movie, but since these prisoners were treated well by the Nazis, he was able to focus on their moral struggles without being swamped by the emotion of how most prisoners were handled in the camps. He is a wise man and this is a wise film.

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