The moral quandary of Nazi complicity is revisited in taut drama “The Counterfeiters,” which tells the true story of a disparate group of imprisoned artists, financiers and swindlers secretly assembled in a concentration camp to forge millions of pound and dollar notes to support the German war effort. Tough subject matter and a crafty lead perf from Austrian-born tube vet Karl Markovics as a Russian Jew who goes along to get along will earn genuine interest from fests, distribs and ancillary providers.
A brief preamble introduces 45-year-old Salomon Sorowitsch (Markovics), a gaunt, hatchet-faced man in a threadbare suit who’s appeared in the gambler’s mecca of Monte Carlo at the end of World War II with a suitcase full of crisp American banknotes.
Following success at the tables and a roll in the hay that reveals a concentration camp number on his arm, story flashes back to “Sally’s” halcyon days in 1936 Berlin as a talented forger and enthusiastic bon vivant. “Why earn money by making art?” he says. “Earning money by making money is much easier.”
The gravy train dries up when he’s arrested by police inspector Herzog (David Striesow) and sent to the particularly violent Mauthausen camp. Currying favor with captors via a blend of obsequiousness and opportunism, Sally is soon the resident sketch artist, before being mysteriously transferred, five years later, to Sachsenhausen.
He’s been hand-picked by Herzog, now a commandant, to coordinate a team of experts forced to counterfeit pounds, then dollars, to destabilize respective economies and fill Nazi coffers. But not everyone’s as pragmatic as Sorowitsch, who finds the dollar project continuously sabotaged by stubbornly idealistic collotype specialist Adolf Burger (August Diehl), on whose memoir script is based. As moral debates and stalling strategies swirl amongst the counterfeiters, Herzog’s impatience grows and the Nazi war machine begins to falter.
Austrian-born helmer Stefan Ruzowitzky continues his move away from the visual surface gloss of early work, including German horror franchise “Anatomy,” towards the rougher, more jittery approach pioneered in his previous effort, war-set English-lingo comedic misfire “All the Queen’s Men.” New pic reps fine balance of style with story.
As in recent Hungarian camp drama “Fateless,” the horror here comes not from explicit atrocities — though pic has abrupt, jagged violence — but from the large-scale tragedy implied on the other side of the workshop compound’s thin plywood walls. Random screams and gunshots are heard at all hours, though the specialists themselves are treated to good food, comfortable bedding, piped-in opera music, and even, incongruously, a ping-pong table. When the walls finally come down, the gulf between their health and the camp’s squalor neatly underscores deeper moral ramifications.
Nuanced interplay among Markovics, Diehl and Striesow is pic’s main focus, with supporting players vividly drawn.
Other tech aspects are fine, led by meticulous production design of counterfeiters’ lair. Pic is skedded for mid-March German release.