"The Counterfeiters" was Austria's entry in the 2008 Academy Awards, and it won Best Foreign Language Film of the Year, the first Austrian entry to do so. I hadn't seen the entries it edged out--"12," "Beaufort," "Katyn," and "Mongol"--but it's easy to see why this Stefan Ruzowitzky film appealed to judges.
Based on a book by former Operation Bernhard inmate Adolph Burger, "The Counterfeiters" parts the curtain to show a glimpse into a little-known facet of concentration camp history, and the subject matter itself is fascinating enough to be compelling. Beginning in 1942, SS Major Bernhard Krüger established a team of nearly 150 counterfeiters in a secret section of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where design and printing experts were treated as if they were in a bad hotel rather than a death camp. The goal was to duplicate the British pound notes so precisely that not even the Bank of England could tell the difference, then flood the market with the notes and collapse the British economy. In fact, one of the most outrageous scenes in the movie shows a German agent trying to deposit a large number of the pound notes to see if they pass the test, then getting bold and insisting that the bank's word that they're authentic isn't good enough. He directs them to send them to the Bank of England, who also validate the notes as being authentic.
Amazingly, some nine million British pound notes were printed with a total value of close to 135 million pounds. Buoyed by their success, the Nazis next directed their counterfeiting team to tackle the U.S. dollar. But the Nazis didn't have the means to carry out their plan to distribute the pound notes--using them instead to finance covert operations and also reportedly rescue Italian dictator Benito Mussolini--and the war ended before the prisoners could give their German overseers a second perfect forgery.
There's no big-picture treatment here, with enough of a sense of how major an impact the dumped pounds would have had on the British economy and war effort, or even much beyond what goes on inside the camp. Instead, like "The Grey Zone" (2001), the focus is on the moral dilemma that the prisoners face. Professionals all (some legal, some illegal), their pride kicks in, but their lives also depend on their success. Still, all of the men realize that they are going to be killed like the rest of the Jews in the concentration camp once their usefulness is outlived, and helping the German war effort is also perversely moving them closer to their own deaths--despite promises of villas and women if they do their jobs well, pampered prisoners for life. As a 90-year-old Burger says on one of the bonus features, "We were dead men on holiday. We never expected to walk away from this secret operation."
Can there possibly be a better premise for a dramatic film?
And yet, while I wouldn't go so far as to say that the opportunity was squandered, "The Counterfeiters" feels more ordinary than its extraordinary subject matter. Screenwriter-director Ruzowitzky chose to focus mostly on the relationship between master-forger Salomon "Sally" Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics) and printer Adolph Burger (August Diehl), and that keeps it both somewhat insular and low-key. He also downplayed the elements we normally associate with concentration camps, giving little screen time to the horrors and largely restricting us to Sally's more privileged point of view. There's not even the tension of not knowing whether Sally lives or dies, because this is a frame story that begins with the famed counterfeiter passing more of his funny money at a post-war Monte Carlo Casino. To his credit, though, Ruzowitzky also fought any temptation to add elements in order to create of tenser dramatic structure. Even if the result is a slice-of-life film that feels like a slice-of-life, for good or for bad, and the camerawork and editing are also pretty nuts-and-bolts, that matter-of-factness also supports the realistic integrity of the film. Not a lot happens in this film other than the yoked prisoners doing their jobs and trying to stay alive in the process.
The acting is superb, though, and Markovics does an excellent job of conveying the complexities of his character, who is sympathetic to his Communist friend's desire to sabotage the operation. But he's also a practical man whose survival instincts are as sharp as his engraver's eye. One guesses that for Burger, it's an easier sacrifice to give his life for a cause, and the question that enters into it is whether Sally's criminal and Burger's good citizen orientations shape even these basic attitudes. Add the more sadistic-minded Nazis, and "The Counterfeiters" presents three levels of morality. It's a film that's not flashy and one which doesn't go for the big scene. Rather, it's an examination of human nature combined with a small lesson in German history--and there's enough here to make it worth watching more than once.
It's hard for me to evaluate the video quality, though, because I missed seeing this film in theaters and can't comment on whether the rough picture is intentional. All I can tell you is that it is rough, with considerable graininess, edges that aren't as precise as we're used to seeing in HD releases, and colors that don't come close to being fully saturated. Now, is this intended to support the "lost footage" feel that this film has? Perhaps, since the quality is even rougher than the best DVDs these days. "The Counterfeiters" was transferred to a BD-50 disc using AVC encoding, and again I can't evaluate this very well except to say that there's a lot of "noise" in a number of scenes, which makes me wonder about the transfer process. Some scenes are sharper, but overall it's not a pretty picture. Neither, of course, is life in a concentration camp. "The Counterfeiters" is presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and fills the entire 16x9 screen.
The audio is also rough, a German and French Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack with subtitles in English, English SDH, French, and Spanish. Whether it's deliberate or not, the audio track has a little hiss to it, as though there were little in the way of boom mics used.
There's a wealth of bonus features, some of them excellent and most of them better than average. A 10-minute making-of feature gives the basics and introduces 90-year-old Adolph Burger, who talks passionately about his story and tells that the one thing he insisted on was script approval. After hearing him speak, you walk away convinced that if anything was added to his story or if changes were made, they didn't at all conflict with the basic facts. Longer interviews with Ruzowitzky, Burger (author of "The Devil's Workshop"), and actor Markovics. Burger's is the shortest segment at just about 10 minutes, with the other two running closer to 17. It's interesting to hear Ruzowitzky tell how he was approached by two different producers to tell this story, which convinced him that it was his fate to do so.
Another short (10 min. or so) segment shows Burger artifacts--newspaper clippings, etc.--with more discussion of the real operation. A roughly 10-minute Q&A with the director covers some of the same ground, with deleted scenes running under four minutes. There's one scene that seems to include content important to the film, and yet it was cut. Would-be filmmakers will debate over whether it was a good or bad edit.
Apart from any time that Burger is on-camera, Ruzowitzky's full-length commentary (in English) is the best of the bonus features. He covers a great deal of ground, including casting, tracking shots, working with actors, set and lighting decisions, and working with Burger as a kind of conscience that kept him honest.
"The Counterfeiters" tells a compelling story without fanfare or standard dramatic conventions, and that's saying something. For those interested in the history of Nazi Germany and World War II, the film delves into aspects that aren't well known, and explores character in the process. Is it worthy of the Oscar it won? I think so. And the fact that it invites repeat viewing supports that opinion.