UC Observer logo
UCObserver on SoundCloud UCObserver on YouTube UCObserver on Facebook UCObserver on Twitter UCObserver's RSS Feeds

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.
Readers’ advisory: The discussion below is moderated by The UC Observer and facilitated by Intense Debate (ID), an online commentary system. The Observer reserves the right to edit or reject any comment it deems to be inappropriate. Approved comments may be further edited for length, clarity and accuracy, and published in the print edition of the magazine. Please note: readers do not need to sign up with ID to post their comments on ucobserver.org. We require only your user name and e-mail address. Your comments will be posted from Monday to Friday between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Join the discussion today!
Promotional Image


David Wilson%


by David Wilson

If statues could talk

Promotional Image


ObserverDocs: Stolen Mother

by Observer Staff

The daughter and adoptive mother of one of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women share their story

Promotional Image


July 2017

From far and wide

by Various Writers

Meet 11 immigrants who are putting down new roots


June 2017

A suitcase for Cuba

by Christopher Levan

You’ll find more than giveaway toiletries and hand-me-downs in the writer's luggage. Each carefully chosen gift offers a glimpse into the lives of Cubans today.


June 2017


by Kristy Woudstra

Up to half a million people are living in Canada without official status. The ‘sanctuary city’ movement is growing, but the fear of deportation persists.


June 2017

Resisting genocide

by Sally Armstrong

In August 2014, ISIS attacked Iraq’s Yazidis, slaughtering thousands and forcing women and girls into sexual slavery. Today, the survivors are fighting for their ancient way of life.


April 2017

Dear Grandkids

by Various Writers

Six acclaimed Canadian authors write letters from the heart


March 2017

Called to resist

by Paul Wilson

Liberal Christians in the United States test their faith against a demagogue

Promotional Image