'The Counterfeiters': A Holocaust Fable With A Happy Ending?

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Let's be clear: Austria's The Counterfeiters was not the best foreign-language film of the year. (For my money, that would be the minutely observed, grim-but-humane Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days.) It is a good, compelling film, but, its Oscar win notwithstanding, it is an uneasy hybrid of competing forms: Holocaust fable, crime thriller, true(ish) story, and moral inquiry.

The story begins in prewar Berlin, where master forger Salomon Sorowitsch, or "Sally" (Karl Markovics), is happily availing himself of the income, and feminine attentions, that accompany his profession. After receiving carnal compensation from a lady requesting a false passport, he sketches her portrait quickly but precisely. When she asks why he does not pursue a career as an artist, he replies, "Why earn money by making art? Earning money by making money is much easier."

It turns out not to be quite so easy as he imagines, though, when Sally is arrested for counterfeiting and sent to a prison camp, where he's put to work painting heroic likenesses of the reigning Nazis. A more strategic use for his talents is eventually conceived, however, and he is moved to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp to take part in "Operation Bernhard," a massive counterfeiting scheme undertaken by the Third Reich in an effort to destabilize the economies of Britain and the United States. The Nazi in charge of the operation, Sturmbannführer Herzog (Devid Striesow), is a former policeman who once arrested Sally, and views him as a kind of friendly-adversary-turned-accomplice. In return for their efforts, Sally and his fellow forgers receive unimagined luxuries: clothes that are fresh (though the former property of dead men), showers once a week, a ping pong table, and, of course, the implicit assurance that they will not be gassed or shot for as long as they prove themselves useful....

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