In Stefan Ruzowitzky’s The Counterfeiters, another chapter of the Second World War is shown with a fine work of subtraction. The strong personal involvement – not only of the director, but also of the whole crew, constantly in close contact with Adolf Burger – is clear.
A little more history
February 24, 2008. On Oscar Night, The Counterfeiters, directed by Stefan Ruzowitsky and presented in competition at the Berlinale 2007, won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. This is the first time that Austria has won an Oscar and, as Ruzowitzky himself said during his speech, this victory means a lot to a nation that – since the 1930s, after Hitler’s rise to power – has seen many film directors emigrate to the United States (just think, for example, of names such as Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger and Fred Zinnemann). And on this note, The Counterfeiters, which also tells the story of the Holocaust – like many other Austrian and German films produced from the end of the Second World War until today – is particularly significant and emblematic in representing a sort of “mea culpa”, but also a real victory for Austrian cinema.
Based on Adolf Burger’s autobiographical novel The Devil’s Workshop, the film depicts a lesser-known episode from the Second World War, when a group of printers, graphic designers and also a well-known counterfeiter of the time were hired at the Mauthausen concentration camp to print a large quantity of pounds and dollars to save Germany from bankruptcy. Smolianoff, the counterfeiter, is here called Salomon Sorowitsch (played by the talented Karl Markovics), addicted to women and good living, before being deported to Mauthausen. Here he meets the printer Adolf Burger, who becomes a great friend of his and, in defiance of the SS, tries to sabotage the Nazis’ plan.
Having already established himself as a successful horror director (see, for example, Anatomy and Anatomy 2, respectively from 2000 and 2003), Stefan Ruzowitzky immediately felt at ease with this story, apparently far removed from the style he had previously adopted. And so, with a refined work of subtraction (interesting, in this regard, is the almost exclusive use of shoulder-mounted cameras, as well as an almost completely absence of music, if we don’t count a few harmonica notes in the opening of the film or purely diegetic lyrical passages), another chapter of the Second World War is shown – a film in which strong personal involvement is clear, not only of the director, but also of the whole crew, constantly in close contact with Adolf Burger (who left us in December 2016), here played by the young August Diehl (later chosen by Quentin Tarantino for the role of Major Dieter in Inglourious Basterds).
The characters are portrayed as more human than ever, in a film where friendship and solidarity win out, skilfully staged to avoid dangerous rhetoric and simple do-gooding. And then, first and foremost, there is the theme of memory. A historical memory in which countries like Austria and Germany – as most of their films show – do not seem to be lacking and which is emphasised here with the interesting use of flashback, which starts just a few minutes after the opening, when Sorowitsch’s days in Monte Carlo after the end of the war seem to follow one another quite quickly and without particular emotional shocks, as if time had stopped forever. Interesting, in this regard, also the way in which the protagonist considers money: a pure means to obtain what you want, but which, in fact, has no value. This concept is also repeated to a desperate Dolores Chaplin, after Sorowitsch himself has lost all his banknotes at gambling. The man reassures the girl by saying that it will not take long to “make up” the money that has been lost.
And so, with the sound of the waves of the sea in the opening and at the end of the film, which, with an elliptical structure, seem to want to represent this chapter of the Nazi dictatorship as an episode in itself, another interesting fact of the war is shown to us. The end result is probably one of the most successful films on the subject, which is a real gem in Austrian cinema.
Original title: Die Fälscher
Directed by: Stefan Ruzowitzky
Country/year: Austria, Germany / 2007
Running time: 98’
Genre: drama, historical
Cast: Karl Markovics, August Diehl, Devid Striesow, Marie Bäumer, Dolores Chaplin, Martin Brambach, Andreas Schmidt, August Zirner, Sebastian Urzendowsky, Veit Stübner, Hille Beseler, Tim Breyvogel
Screenplay: Adolf Burger, Stefan Ruzowitzky
Cinematography: Benedict Neuenfels
Produced by: Studio Babelsberg