Review by Michael Jacobson
Stars: Karl Markovics,
August Diehl, Devid Striesow, Martin Brambach
Director: Stefan Ruzowitzky
Audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Features: See Review
Length: 95 Minutes
Release Date: August 5, 2008
ďYou either adapt or die.Ē
The above quote sounds like it could have come from the works of Darwin, but in the context of a movie where adapting means a truly critical moral dilemma, it takes on greater meaning.
The Counterfeiters is a holocaust movie, so it may have been no surprise when the Austrian film took home an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. What may have been surprising was the little-known piece of true history it represented: how a small group of Jewish prisoners may have held the key to the Nazisí ultimate success or failure in World War II.
It focuses on Salomon Sorowitsch (Markovics), an infamously good forger who could craft money, passports, documents or anything else with his artistic talent. As the story opens, it seems his luck has run out. The German police have captured him at long last.
Itís not the end of his troubles. Flash forward a few years when the war is in full swing, and Salomon, or Sally, as his friends call him, is now in a concentration camp. But his fate is not necessarily sealed. As it turns out, the German cop Herzog (Striesow) who arrested him is now an officer in the camp, and he has picked Sally and a group of other miscellaneously talented Jews for a special assignment: they are to create counterfeit English pounds as a way of flooding Europe with false money and devaluing the real currency, thus wrecking the British economy.
At least thatís how it starts outÖas the war progresses, it becomes clear that Hitler is nearly bankrupt. The plan switches gears: use the pound and counterfeit dollars to finance the war effort. Sally and his team are kept isolated from the real horrors of the camp as a result: they have better food, better beds, and even some recreation time, all in exchange for doing what no one else could do.
For Sally, itís simply a matter of survival. For others, like the confrontational Burger (Diehl), itís a question with deep moral implications. They may be separated from the rest of the camp, but all know full well whatís taking place outside their safe haven. Burger argues that by following the Naziís orders, they could bring Hitler his ultimate triumph, and as such, he boldly sets about to sabotage the efforts.
But Sally and his men are only useful to the Nazis as long as they produce. With time running out and Sally caught between staying alive and doing what all the prisoners know is ultimately right, he will have to make a decision: will he capitulate, or will he turn Burger in to save all of their lives?
The film succeeds in presenting a quandary that will have viewers asking themselves what they would do in the same situation. We all know clearly what is right and what is wrong, but can one manís moral decision determine the fate of a whole group of men?
Where it might not succeed as well is in the inevitable comparisons to other holocaust movies that had greater impactÖfilms like Schindlerís List or The Pianst, or to a smaller degree, even Life is Beautiful. The unfathomable horror of the concentration camps has been demonstrated many times before, so despite the true nature of the story, one feels that The Counterfeiters doesnít cover a lot of new ground.
The movie, written and directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky, was actually based on the book by Adolf Burger, the man who refused to help, and his actual tale makes for a compelling drama of men forced to make a choice between two regrettable outcomes; one with greater immediate personal implications, and one that could change the face of history forever.
Despite the history of the events, I donít think I can give away the end result. You may be able to figure it out for yourselves ahead of time. But the best aspect of The Counterfeiters is its ability to focus on the process that leads to the results and how heavy it weighs on all concerned, rather than just using the conclusion as a means to an end.
Iím sad to say that this is the weakest entry Iíve seen yet on Blu-ray. It probably owes to the filmís smaller budget, but the film stock really belies a lot of grain, murkiness and lack of definition. There are only a few shots that really remind you of the high definition technology employed in bringing us the disc. Itís watchable, but a far cry from what hi-def fans are used to.
The Dolby TrueHD soundtrack fares better, with some decent dynamic range and the ability to use the surrounds to make you feel like thereís always something happening just outside the event horizon of the menís working space. Usually something terrible. You can choose between German and French tracks in the uncompressed format.
The extras are generous, starting with a nice commentary from director Stefan Ruzowitzky. There is a making of featurette and interviews with Ruzowitzky, actor Karl Markovics, and the real life Adolf Burger, along with a look at Burgerís historical artifacts. There is a director Q&A, as well as a trailer and some deleted scenes.
The Counterfeiters doesnít fake the moral drama, and while the movie may not be remembered in the same vein with more illustrious holocaust films, it will definitely intrigue those looking for some little-known World War II history about a small group of prisoners who had the power to change the tide of the war.