Reality is ‘Counterfeiters’ fails to answer key questions

Winner of this year’s Oscar for best foreign film, “The Counterfeiters” loosely chronicles events in
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Winner of this year’s Oscar for best foreign film, “The Counterfeiters” loosely chronicles events in which a group of Jews helped the Nazis during World War II.

Led by Salomon “Sallie” Sorowitsch, played by veteran actor Karl Markovics, the export forgers are yanked from hard labor and imminent death into the relatively plush confines of a studio. There, in a plan called “Operation Bernhard,” they create masterpieces, exact replicas, for instance, of British and American currency. The results are impressive. In England, experts declared the fakes were genuine British notes.

Stefan Razowitzky’s film adds to the treasure trove of films still unearthing an endless array of untold or buried narratives documenting events of that era; it is likely more will emerge. Those already told in books and diaries are still rich fodder for movies. Many point to the moral dilemmas faced by principals and victims in this panorama of dramatic action, which turned the world upside down in the ’30s and ’40s. That is, just the other day.

‘Black Book’ is better

While “The Counterfeiters” whets and satisfies our appetite for anecdotal information, it does not wholly succeed in capturing the subtleties and vicissitudes of human emotion captured in a masterpiece like “Black Book,” last year’s most significant cinematic contribution to the World War II library.

Markovics is outstanding and believable as the relatively unsavory character known to authorities even before the war broke out. He’s a con man, who would probably put the characters in “Oceans 11” to shame with his talent.

He is also a survivor. As we see here, he was able to escape hard labor by painting portraits of Nazi officers and their families before he was enlisted by Friedrich Herzog, a concentration camp commandant played by Devid Striesow. It’s interesting that before he became a prominent military figure, Herzog was a detective who arrested Sorowitsch for his duplicities in a casino.

In what seems to be an attempt to avoid clichés we associate with concentration camp movies, Razowitzky presents his story with a relatively dispassionate sense of distance. This approach both helps and hinders his film. There’s something bizarrely chilling about a situation in which the forgers play ping-pong, while on the other side of the wall we hear an occasional scream or burst of gunfire reminding us and them of the fate of the unfortunates just next door. This is all we need to know. Cutting to a graphic torture scene, for instance, would be indulgent.

We need to know more

The moral dilemma is embodied by Adolph Burger who wrote the book on which the movie is based. He is the film’s conscience, reminding his fellow forgers that by helping the Nazis, they are committing unspeakable crimes against humanity. Balance that impulse with the will to survive. As we know, there are also Jews who played music as the prisoners arrived or entertained Nazi troops with concerts. Though less grievous, can they too stand accused of enhancing Nazi morale? From another vantage point, can any of us say with certainty that we would refuse aid to captors in order to stay alive?

“The Counterfeiters” addresses those issues, but here is where the distanced approach does not allow us to get into the heads of the participants, especially Sallie, who seems bothered by his previous acts once the war is over. We do not hear from those who suffered on the other side in the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp.

Are some of them resentful that their fellow prisoners avoided privation and death to survive? We need to know more, perhaps be privy to some dialogue. As a result, the story of this operation comes to us as little more than an anecdotal sidelight.

It’s interesting, but hardly as profound as the narrative deserves to be.

Categories: Entertainment, Life and Arts

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