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Strong acting pushes film beyond predictable

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Weekly
Karl Markovics, Devid Striesow and Martin Brambach, left to right, are featured in the Austrian film "The Counterfeiters," showing this week at the Wheeler Opera House. (Jat Jurgen Olczyk)
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Unlike virtually every film character sent to a Nazi concentration camp, Salomon Sorowitsch deserves some form of imprisonment. “Sally” Sorowitsch, the focus of director-screenwriter Stefan Ruzowitzky’s “The Counterfeiters,” had hardly been an innocent prior to being taken to the camps. He was a wheeler and dealer ” a loan shark, gambler, boozer. If he had to pick one occupation to put on his business card, it would be counterfeiter ” and an extremely good one, putting his considerable artistic talent to the task. Despite being a small man, Sally conducted his affairs like a bully, using his intensity, his intelligence and his long chin to intimidate associates. As one acquaintance says of him at the beginning of the film, Sally is the most famous scoundrel in prewar Berlin.

Entwined with his criminal conduct is his moral attitude, one built on practicality rather than principles. A Jew, and one who is not ignorant of the tone pervading 1936 Germany, Sally nevertheless advises blending in with the prevailing winds. “The problem with Jews,” he tells a friend, “is that they have not been more adaptable.”

Within minutes of dispensing this wisdom, Sorowitsch, played with force and energy by Karl Markovics, a prominent stage, TV and film actor in his native Austria, is busted. An ambitious Nazi officer, Herzog (Devid Striesow), bursts into his studio and Sally is sent to the Mauthausen camp.



It is an interesting set of personality traits, talents and perspectives that Sally brings with him to the camp. He is street-tough rather than meek; his instincts as a survivor bring him to confront his Nazi captors. The only thing keeping him from being shot in an instant is his well-publicized skill as a counterfeiter, which the Germans intend to put to nefarious use. Sally also juggles a hard-core individualism with the honor-among-thieves ethos. Many of the camp inmates despise him for his background as a petty criminal.

When the Nazi effort begins its downward turn ” with Germany’s finances playing a prominent role in their eventual defeat ” Sally is transferred to the Sachsenhausen camp. There he was ordered to lead a team of Jewish prisoners in the historically factual Operation Bernhard, Hitler’s plan to destabilize Britain’s economy by flooding the country with forged bills. The crew he assembles includes a younger artist, a staunch moralist, and a narrow-minded but devoted doctor.




The Holocaust has kept filmmakers in the U.S. and Europe busy for decades. (Up next: “Defiance,” directed by Edward Zwick and starring Daniel Craig as one of three brothers who take refuge from the Nazis in a Polish forest.) There is a reductionist tendency to focus on the same set of issues, and “The Counterfeiters” hits most of them: the prisoners’ collaboration with the Nazis; the purely evil German versus the ones merely following orders; the philosophy of whether it is wiser to fight back and likely be killed, or to submit in the hopes of living another day, and another, until the nightmare ends.

“The Counterfeiters” ” which has a strong resemblance to 2001’s “The Grey Zone” ” hasn’t suffered much for its familiarity; it earned the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Picture this year. For that, it has the character of Sally Sorowitsch and the actor Karl Markovics to thank. Sally begins as a complex enough guy, the charming, selfish rogue. His experience in the camp multiplies his facets: He wants to succeed as a counterfeiter to demonstrate his superior skills and to keep himself invaluable to the Nazis. But he is also swayed that by helping the Nazis, he is furthering their aims to destroy the Jewish race.

Markovics’ performance is indelible; he could well have been a nominee for the Best Actor Oscar. It is strong enough that, even working with issues that have become almost predictable, “The Counterfeiters” is an illuminating and intellectually engaging return visit to the concentration camps.

stewart@aspentimes.com

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