The Reeler


February 21, 2008

The Counterfeiters

True story of money-making and survival during the Holocaust a sharp-paced thriller

Salomon "Sally" Sorowitsch is neckless, small and strong, with an emdash for a mouth and square, bracketed shoulders. He cuts a dapper -- if wilted -- thuggish figure in the opening scene of The Counterfeiters, Viennese director Stefan Ruzowitzky's version of a true story, skulking through Monte Carlo in 1946, throwing cash and a very large shadow. Sally (Karl Markovics) is a man possessed and out of place, burning through a casino and a slinky call girl, then flashing the tell-tale tattoo that cues a flashback to Berlin, 1936, and the bad omens that time entails.

The tattoo flash is one of cinema's heaviest signifiers, used to launch any number of Holocaust flashbacks in the extensive canon on the subject; it is also the least felicitously played moment in The Counterfeiters, the rest of which is almost self-consciously bracing in style. Sophie's Choice, another film about the ethical and existential tragedies that lay beneath the literally obliterating atrocities of the Holocaust, also used the tattoo flash to point blank effect; filmmakers can't seem to resist both its suggestive and transitional potency. I wish they would, if only to avoid suggesting as well the uniformity, and even cliché, of the individual experience.

Sally Sorowitsch is the extreme definition of an individual. He had been writing his own ticket for years before the war began; as one of the best counterfeiters in the world, he needed only himself and a printing press to survive. Arrested and taken to the Mauthausen concentration camp in 1939, Sally is recognized by Herzog (Devid Striesow), the dreadful and droll officer who took him down him before the war, and transferred to another camp in Germany, to be part of the Nazi plot to counterfeit the English pound and then the dollar as a means to flood the market and render them worthless. Sally had his eye on the dollar before the war, a bete noir he was now being rewarded -- along with a motley crew of skilled Jewish designers and printers -- to pursue, while his fellow captives were starved and murdered just beyond the walls of their relatively cushy dorm. The clock runs down on the men, and the war, as a resister in their ranks named Burger (August Diehl) sabotages their progress out of disgust with being used by his persecutors.

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Ruzowitzky suggests the desperation and paranoia of that environment with a roughshod, Greengrass-esque style, often shooting scenes with the blurry intimacy of an interloper -- from behind a pillar, a shoulder, and with a darting eye. He switches palettes to suit various milieux -- a greenish monochrome for the main camp at Mauthausen, slate gray and white for the mens' covert work room -- suggesting the consumptive properties of environment, the ability of space and circumstance to infect behavior. The score is aggressively incongruous, a blend of harmonium and accordion-guided whimsy more suited to a romantic caper set on the Mediterranean.

Sally's survival instincts are impeccable, and as the brains of the operation the maverick ex-con finds himself leading a crew of men more prone to the breakdowns that will put themselves, and the group, at risk. When his ego enters the equation -- he wants to beat that dollar -- the compartmentalization of where he is and what he is actually doing becomes even more acute. None but Burger are prepared to die for a principle, but as the evidence of what is happening around them becomes unavoidable, Sally attempts to work a system that bears a striking, if hideously tumorous, resemblance to the criminal underworld he knows: "Herzog is a crook," Sally says. "I know how to handle him."

Markovics is a little Steve McQueen, a little Vincent Cassel, a little Ivan Drago; he inhabits Sally with a possessive force. Striesow is his equal as Herzog, the hard-working Nazi whose jolly practicality is dangerously potent; he hands out cigarettes like Xanax, a little fire-tipped panacea. While Ruzowitzky's script occasionally suffers from the theatrical instinct to give each character his big breakdown -- the chance to overturn or break something in a frenzy of despair -- the story is tightly woven and urgently drawn. The haunted Monte Carlo coda returns Sally to the land of the living, a post-war world of reinvention and bitter reprieve.

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