"One adapts or dies."
Like most movie fans, I participate in an Oscar pool every year. And like most viewers of the Academy Awards broadcast, when the time comes around for categories such as Best Foreign-Language Film where I often haven't seen many (or any) of the nominees, my first instinct is to ask, "Which one is about the Holocaust?" Nine times out of ten, the Holocaust movie wins. It's usually a safe bet. Sure enough, the 2008 ceremony featured four foreign-language nominees about other very serious, sobering topics, and one about the Holocaust. Can you guess which one won? It's a shame that the Academy is so predictable, because it only serves to trivialize the artistic achievement of the films in contention. In fact, 'The Counterfeiters' ('Die Fälscher') is an excellent movie that deserves recognition on its own merits, not just as this year's token Holocaust drama to be handed a trophy.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of 'The Counterfeiters' is that, after all the hundreds of WWII movies made over the last six decades, it manages to find a wholly unique approach and an untold (yet historically significant and dramatically meaty) true story in the midst of such familiar events. The script has been lightly fictionalized to change the names of many of the now-deceased participants, but is based on the memoirs of concentration camp survivor Adolf Burger. The author recounts a tale of a group of Jews that the Nazis actually needed for their war effort and consequently treated relatively well (or at least as well as could be possible in a concentration camp), while their fellow countrymen were being starved and gassed just outside the walls of their barracks.
The focus of the story is Salomon "Sally" Sorowitsch, a Russian Jew working in Berlin as a loan shark and counterfeiter. Sorowitsch isn't interested in politics or religion. He just wants to make some money (literally, make it) to keep up his decadent lifestyle. Adept at forging passports, official documents, and most European currencies, Sally struggles at cracking the American dollar when he's arrested and sent to prison. A cunning survivor with a knack for adapting to any circumstance, he manages to get in the good graces of his guards by painting portraits and propaganda murals, but can't avoid being transferred to a concentration camp. Eventually he winds up at Sachsenhausen, where the Nazis plan to put his particular talents to good use. Grouped with a carefully-chosen selection of printers, engravers, photographers, and graphic artists, Sorowitsch becomes part of "Operation Bernhardt," a Nazi program to use Jewish slave labor to forge money and documents. At first, they're told that the plan is to flood the British economy with counterfeit Pounds, but it soon becomes clear that the Germans need the fake money to finance their failing military campaigns. So critical is this program, the prisoners are provided with soft beds, running water, clean clothes, and even a doctor. Sachsenhausen becomes known as their "Golden Cage."
For Sorowitsch, the profound irony of the situation is that only in the concentration camp is he finally given access to the latest in professional printing equipment, all the resources he could need, and full sanction to achieve his life's goal. His fake Pounds are so perfect that they pass authentication by even the Bank of England itself, but the Germans need American dollars, and Sally is the only man who can deliver. He justifies his cooperation as a matter of survival, but fellow prisoner Burger plots to sabotage the program, and challenges Sally's motives. "Is this about survival or proving you can forge the dollar?" he demands.
'The Counterfeiters' is a story rich in moral ambiguities, and a film that deftly balances the oppressive tragic weight of the Holocaust with the dramatic internal conflicts of its characters. The movie has excellent performances from its entire cast, an intelligent script, and sharp direction. Whether its Oscar win can be argued to be a token award or not, the picture is a compelling piece of filmmaking.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Counterfeiters' comes to Blu-ray from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. Like other releases from the studio, the disc opens with an annoying promo and trailers that must be individually skipped. The disc is also Java-enabled and has menu selections that jump all over the screen for no particular reason.
Hoping the head off negative customer reaction, the back of the disc case contains the following disclaimer: "This film employs a variety of film stocks and grain structures in order to tell the story. This intentional visual style has been retained for this high definition presentation, as per the filmmaker's intent." In other words, 'The Counterfeiters' is a rough-looking movie, never meant to be shiny HD eye candy. Shot on 16mm film, the photography is quite grainy from start to finish, rather soft in detail, and drab in color scheme. All of which feels completely appropriate for the subject matter. I can't speak for everyone, but a sparkly Technicolor fantasia about the Holocaust would not be a movie I'd want to see.
With that in mind, Sony's 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer (presented in the movie's theatrical 1.85:1 aspect ratio) appears as accurate as it needs to be. Grain in the image is well rendered and retains the proper filmic textures. The picture is very contrasty by design, with stark whites and deep blacks. Detail is adequate considering the photographic limitations. The movie is actually quite beautiful in its way, just not in the traditional glossy Hollywood style that some viewers may expect. My only complaint about the transfer is the presence of some very minor edge ringing on occasion, but it's not severe enough to detract from the viewing experience.
The original German-language soundtrack is offered in lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1 format. Like the video, the audio isn't showy or attention-grabbing, but gets the job done in a technically proficient manner appropriate to the material. The mix has a rich score reproduced in warm musical fidelity. Dialogue is always crisp and clear. Surround usage is rare and subtle (most noticeable in the casino scenes). This simply isn't a movie you pull off the shelf to demo a surround sound system with slamming bass or aggressive directional effects. For what it is and what it's meant to be, the disc presents the soundtrack cleanly and faithfully.
The majority of bonus features are duplicated from the DVD edition of the movie. All of the supplements from the DVD have made the transition to Blu-ray. Although they may not seem like much when listed out in bullet-points, most of them offer substantive and worthy content.
Also included are some previews for other unrelated Sony titles.
A rich and rewarding story well told, 'The Counterfeiters' has also been given a strong Blu-ray release with faithful (if not flashy) picture and sound quality, as well as a worthy selection of bonus features. Recommended.