Affecting drama 'The Counterfeiters' relays the true story of a group of concentration camp prisoners, forced to work on a massive Nazi-run money forging operation, which was organised to finance the flagging war effort. They are faced with a tough dilemma: comply with the Nazis, or face certain death.
The disparate group of Jewish printers, artists and trained specialists were assembled in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp and given special privileges; soft beds, regular meals and in a one chilling scene, a ping-pong table, for working on counterfeiting the British pound and cracking the American dollar.
Heading the counterfeiters' workshop was Salomon Sorowitsch (Markovics), a master forger whose glamorous lifestyle was abruptly interrupted when he was arrested in Berlin in 1936. Sent to a concentration camp, the ever resourceful Sorowitsch used his creative skills to get by, becoming the personal artist of the SS.
When he was enlisted by Inspector Herzog (Striesow) to take charge of the forging operation, Sorowitsch saw this as a chance to survive. Within their quarters, the workers could stay alive as long at they complied with the Nazi orders. If they did not, death would be swift. The realities of the concentration camp could be heard through the thin walls of the blocks, and were a constant reminder of the potential for terrible brutality.
The painful conflict between aiding the Nazis in their war effort and their own will to survive played on the workers' minds. Most enraged by this was Adolf Burger (Diehl), on whose memoir the script is based.
He and his wife were imprisoned for printing anti-Nazi leaflets, and she was killed trying to escape from Auschwitz. Despite the threat of death if the group did not successfully reproduce the American dollar, Burger routinely sabotaged work to stall the Nazis in their attempt to weaken their enemy's economies.
Diehl is superb as Burger, his rage and indignation at the injustices barely simmering under the surface at all times. The conflict between the pragmatic Sorowitsch and stubbornly idealistic Burger underscores the larger moral issue, and adds to the agonising tension throughout the film.
Markovics makes the film as the anti-hero Sorowitsch. He skilfully captures the inherent complexities of the character, his intelligence, guilt and unbreakable will to live. His fierce loyalties to his fellow workers, coupled with his strong sense of self-preservation are juxtaposed with ease. Excellent performances from the supporting cast, such as Striesow's complex Nazi Inspector Herzog and Stübner's perennially jolly Atze, complement the superb lead performances.
Writer-director Stefan Ruzowitzky has created a film that is tragic and arresting, without feeling the need to continually emphasise to the viewer how utterly grim the situation was. Instead the viewer is mostly shielded from the full extent of the bleak reality, as were the counterfeiters. He even-handedly presents the moral issue of idealism versus reality without preaching to the audience, and has created an intelligent and well-paced drama in the process.