The 2007 Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film, The Counterfeiters is a well acted, strikingly photographed war drama rooted in palpably difficult human choices and emotions. Written and directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky (The Inheritors, All the Queen’s Men), the film centers around the true story of Salomon “Sally” Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics, below), a swindler who during World War II made a name for himself as Berlin’s “King of the Counterfeiters.”
Sorowitsch’s life of women and easy money is cut short when he’s arrested and
placed in a Nazi concentration camp. With the German army on the verge
of bankruptcy, he’s offered a sobering deal by his captors: in
exchange for a comfortable bed, good food and reasonably fair
treatment, Sorowitsch, along with a number of other hand-picked
specialists, must counterfeit bank notes to fund the Nazi war effort.
If he does as they say, he lives another day. If he rebels, he faces
the same fate as the rest of the camp’s prisoners.
Sorowitsch yields quickly, and goes along to get along. The British pound is cracked without much trouble, giving the Nazis hope in their plan to flood the British economy with phony notes. The American dollar, the real prize, is a much harder task. Still, even though he starts to seemingly purposefully drag his feet a bit, Sorowitsch keeps working on the project, and his acquiesance rankles the dissenting Adolf Burger (August Diehl), a fellow prisoner who starts to subtly, habitually sabotage the finalizing ink trays for the task.
With his gaunt, hangdog visage, Markovics is an arresting screen presence, and Ruzowitzky knows how to locate the small details (one of the more moving scenes involves a father finding his children’s passports in a stack of detritus used to forge and re-purpose documents) that give depth and shading to the grand-scale tragedy that forms the movie’s backdrop. Sorowitsch’s relationship with Friedrich Herzog (Devid Striesow) — the Nazi who first arrests him, and then later comes to oversee his counterfeit operations — is also an interesting, complicated thing. One scene finds Herzog taking his prisoner home to meet his family, positioning himself as a bureaucrat who on a certain level realizes not only the abject cruelty of the camps at large but also the absurdity of his task. When the tables are turned and Friedrich is put in a subordinate position, we come to see manifested the true nature of Sorowitsch’s character.
Housed in a regular plastic Amray case, The Counterfeiters comes to DVD with one of the best produced, most robust slate of supplemental extras of any foreign language title this year. An audio commentary track with director Ruzowitzky kicks off the special features, and it’s a rich, anecdote-laden affair; the filmmaker talks about being in Paris for a screenwriters conference and meeting Dolores Chaplin, granddaughter of screen legend Charlie, at a party, and then remembering her when casting a bit part for his movie, of a woman Salomon beds before he gets arrested and hauled away to a concentration camp.
Four deleted scenes and a 10-minute, full screen making-of featurette are also included, and these are not without their charms. The best bonus feature, though, might well be the 20-minute featurette detailing the authentic historical artifacts of Salomon Smolianoff, the real-life figure upon whom the character of Sorowitsch is based. Morally substantial, subtitle-optioned interviews with actor Markovics, the real-life counterfeiter Burger and director Ruzowitzky each run in the 16- to 20-minute range; also included is a Q&A session with Ruzowitzky from the movie’s presentation at AFI Fest in 2007. Rounding things out is rehearsal footage, the movie’s trailer, and previews for David Mamet’s Redbelt and other Sony titles. The only strike on this title, a minor mitigating detail, comes in the form of the movie’s transfer, which — perhaps owing to its roots, and less exacting standards of storage — is a bit marred by grain. For a clip from the film, click here. Meanwhile, to purchase the DVD via Amazon, click here. A- (Movie) A- (Disc)