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The Counterfeiters

Austrian Holocaust film pits moral courage against survival

By David Wilson

The Counterfeiters
Austria: German with subtitles
Directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky, starring Karl Markovics and August Diehl
(Magnolia Filmproduktion)


How far would you go to save your own life? That is the unspoken question posed to audiences in this riveting, Oscar-winning drama from Austria. The fact that The Counterfeiters is based on actual events makes addressing the question tough to avoid.

The story unfolds in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin in the final year of the Second World War. A Russian-born Jew named Salomon Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics) who was a master forger in pre-war Berlin is transferred there and persuaded to set up a sophisticated operation designed to flood the British and American economies with vast amounts of counterfeit currency. In return, Sally, as he’s known, and his team of skilled printers and graphic artists get a little more food, weekly showers and marginally better housing than the millions of others who are being murdered in the Nazi’s death camps.

Sally applies an outlaw’s moral logic to the situation. Why wouldn’t he do what he has to do to survive, especially if it means others will survive in the process? Some of his team see his point precisely, focusing on their work and banishing hard questions from their minds. Others are sick with shame but press ahead nevertheless. A foil to Sally emerges in the form of an ardent communist named Burger (August Diehl) who can’t bring himself to aid the Nazi war machine and tries to sabotage the operation. Burger’s moral courage, his willingness to die for his ideals, is heroic, but it also renders him myopic.

Much of the film is shot with a hand-held camera, giving it a documentary feel and making the skewed moral universe of the camp all the more immediate and unnerving. Absent are the black-and-white absolutes of the film’s most obvious companion, Schindler’s List. Instead, the film navigates the grey ground of situational ethics. The journey is uncomfortable, at points harrowing, but in the end immensely rewarding. In order to figure out Sally Sorowitsch, we have to take on the harder work of figuring out ourselves. 

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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