Stefan Ruzowitzky’s Die Fälscher
Karl Markovics and August Diehl Star in a Portrait of Two Artists Forced to Co-operate with a Nazi Scheme to Undermine the West.
Die Fälscher (The Counterfeiters) directed by Austrian filmmaker Stefan Ruzowitzky is the tale of the largest counterfeiting operation in history. Recreating the wartime money factory set up by the Nazis using concentration camp labour, the story scrutinizes the moral quandary of complicity through a gripping narrative and strongly developed characters.
Better casting or better performances would be hard to imagine in this film, a successful balance between art house seriousness and commercial appeal. Die Fälscher was screened as a competition entry at the Berlinale film festival in February this year, where it was very well received, and has also been nominated for seven awards for the Deutscher Filmpreis –results to be announced on May 4th.
The screenplay of Die Fälscher is based on real events as recorded in the memoirs of Adolph Burger, Des Teufels Werkstatt – The Devil’s Workshop (1951). Burger himself is a central character, a concentration camp detainee forced to take part in Operation Bernhard, a secret Nazi programme aimed at filling the Nazi coffers and destabilizing the economies of Britain and America with counterfeit currency.
In the film we first encounter the charming rogue and gambler Salomon ‘Sally’ Sorowitsch, played by Austrian super star Karl Markovics. Sally is the king of counterfeiters, a gifted artist who decided it was easier to earn a living, by making money — literally. He treats life like a game, guzzling champagne with crooks and loose women in Berlin during the Nazi-era until his luck runs out one day, and he is arrested by Superintendent Friedrich Herzog (Devid Striesow) and sent to the Mauthausen camp. Through a mixture of opportunism and obsequiousness, Sally soon becomes the resident sketch artist, drawing the Nazi officers and painting posters. He is transferred five years later to Sachsenhausen where it turns out he has been hand-picked by Herzog, now a commandant, to coordinate a team of experts forced to counterfeit first pounds, then dollars.
At Sachsenhausen, the group of counterfeiters are given preferential treatment in order to psychologically boost their motivation and physical strength for the job at hand. The barracks are upscale, the beds softer, the sheets cleaner, there is soap and water, better and more plentiful food, cigarettes and Sundays off.
Sally is a pragmatist who believes the Jews have no choice but to adapt to the circumstances to survive. He also hopes to distract himself from the troubles of the war by doing what he does best – forgery. His character is in strong contrast with that of Adolf Burger (August Diehl) who is a printing expert also working on the project and whose wife is in Auschwitz.
Burger is the voice of conscience in the film raising the questions of choice and the price of survival. He is desperate to sabotage Operation Bernhard and constantly challenges Sally that helping the Nazis puts the lives of so many others in jeopardy and prolongs the war. Sally believes staying alive is everything, every day lived is another gained; Burger believes that it is not about the survival of the body but the survival of the soul.
Die Fälscher explores its moral questions through the opposition of these two main characters, and a well-observed interplay with the other men on the project and the Nazi officials in charge of them.
The line between good and evil is not absolute but infinitely blurred in this film, and we are offered no convenient solution to the moral dilemma at its heart. Ruzowitzky makes a good case for both Sally and Burger, encouraging us to identify with their characters – their human strengths as well as their weaknesses. Compared to Burger, Sally might not be righteous, but he is not heartless either, as indicated by his paternal role with the young boy in the group who is very ill. Sally takes risks to make a deal with Herzog to get medicine for the boy in exchange for speeding up the production of the counterfeit money.
Die Fälscher vividly brings to life the day-to-day existence in the camp. Well observed are the ‘privileges’ these men receive such as the tactile sensation of the soft bed with clean sheets that is almost reminiscent of the comfort and pleasure of a human touch. The men are encouraged to experience some ‘normality;’ they play table tennis and celebrate Fasching. However these moments and scenes are abruptly punctuated with brutal and callous violence. The sound of gunshot reveals the omnipresent threat of death that they all face and is a reminder that, for the Nazis, they are an expendable resource.
Die Fälscher is a poignant film that packs an incredibly powerful punch. In exploring the extremes of what it means to be human, it transcends the Nazi era, and its ultimate complicity is that if the circumstances were right, any of these characters could really be us.