Top positive review
8 people found this helpful
War and self-preservation
on August 9, 2008
Operation Bernhard was a secret Nazi counterfeit scheme and one of the lesser-known events of WWII. A group of Jewish printers, engravers, graphic artists, and commercial photographers were rounded up and taken to Sachsenhausen where a counterfeiting factory was set up specifically to produce English Pound notes and later, US dollars, with the Nazi goal of flooding and destabilizing Britain's economy. The resulting notes were so expertly manufactured that Nazi spies had them validated by the Bank of England, which confirmed them as authentic. "The Counterfeiters" (Die Fälscher) is based on this true story.
The film opens in Monte Carlo after WWII. Salomon Sorowitsch (Sally) has a case filled with bank notes, which he carelessly spends at a posh hotel. The story flashes back to 1936 Berlin when Sally was a master forgerer and artist with a thriving underground business. He is captured by the Nazi police and taken to a hard labor camp where he cheats death by drawing portraits of SS officers. Five years later, he is moved to a concentration camp, Sachsenhausen, where he is ordered to supervise the production of what amounted to £132M in counterfeit notes.
Sally is a realist and much as he is sickened by the Nazi's atrocities, he works hard at perfecting their product for no other purpose than self-preservation. "One adapts or dies," he says. The group is housed separately from other prisoners and is given sheets, soap, and clothing. Their participation, however, did not guarantee them their lives. To fully grasp the hopelessness, author Lawrence Malkin wrote in his book, "Krueger's Men," an account of this same story: "[The SS planned to keep the operation secret by killing them when the job was done. The prisoners worked with the knowledge that they were marked for death when they had finished their jobs.] From the start, they wondered whether they should stretch out their work and risk execution for sabotage, or perform efficiently and thus hasten their own deaths."
The cries and shots from beyond their barracks can be distinctly heard and the group still suffers occasional beatings and humiliations by the SS. A young idealist and printer, Adolf Burger, whose wife was killed in Auschwitz, incites the group to sabotage the counterfeiting operations, arguing that they are party to the financing of the Nazi war effort. Sally manages to abort Burger's plans, insisting that dying for a principle is worthless. Despite being a swindler, Sally protected his mates as best as he could and refused to betray anyone of them, going so far as to barter with his barracks commandant for medicine for a sick mate and lying to save another's life.
This story survived because Adolf Burger survived. He is 90 years old and still lectures about the Holocaust and Operation Bernhard in Prague, and served as consultant in the film. It does have an incredible level of authenticity to it. Karl Markovics as Sally was just superb. With very little outward emotion, he is able to project the nightmarish life in Sachsenhausen, where one mistake could mean the end of your life. He is clearly torn by his need to survive and the tragedies of his mates--Burger's wife and another's children killed by the Nazis--as well as the killings of prisoners beyond their barracks. His moments of grief are quite touching. The young August Diehl as Burger is excellent, too, and his idealistic stance was an effective contrast to Sally's pragmatism. Two very different men with divergent approaches, but both courageous and inspiring. When the story returns to Monte Carlo, Sally does something unexpected that's a fitting end to the story.
I really think it's a perfect film. There's not a single thing I can find fault with. It's a quality drama about the moral dilemmas prisoners grappled with when faced daily with the prospect of death, and how wrenching these choices were. It certainly deserved its Oscar as best Foreign Language Film in 2007.
DVD extras are: The Making of..., Interview with the director, Adolf Burger's Artifacts, and a Q&A with the director, all worth seeing as they provide an even deeper understanding of the true story of Operation Bernhard (named after the scheme's instigator, SS officer Bernhard Krueger). It's an excellent and compelling story and highly recommended.
(Language: German with English subtitles)