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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Counterfeit King

Life-and-death decisions

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Withhis grim visage, tight lips and square jaw, Salomon (“Sally”) Sorowitsch resembles at times a cartoon crook from Dick Tracy. Sally lives up to his appearance. No petty criminal, but rather an artist, he was Berlin’s “King of Counterfeiters,” replicating paper currency, identification cards, passports and “Aryan documentation” for Jews—all for a fee.

According to The Counterfeiters, which is based on a true story of a Nazi plan to bring down the economies of their wartime enemies, Sally continued his operation for three years into the Third Reich. Finally arrested by Herzog, a jocular detective with the Berlin fraud squad, Sally’s Jewish identity could no longer be concealed in the dark corners of the underworld. He was marched off to the camps, where he endured degradation and starvation before one of his sketches caught the eye of a guard. Before long he was executing family portraits for SS officers and social realist murals depicting German workers, peasants and soldiers marching happily into the New Order.

This year’s Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Picture, The Counterfeiters primarily concerns what happens when Sally is transferred to a special section at the Sachsenhausen camp commanded by his old nemesis, Herzog, now an SS officer. The “King of Counterfeiters” has been drafted into Operation Bernhard, a Nazi plot to produce fake Allied documents and British pound notes. After perfecting the pound, the operation’s Jewish prisoner forgery team is expected to go for the top prize, the world’s most difficult piece of paper to counterfeit, the American dollar. Austrian director Stefan Ruzowitzky sacrifices little of the story’s moral complexity for dramatic effect. Operating from a tidy workshop, wearing white lab coats and sleeping at night on clean sheets, the Bernhard team is painfully aware of its precarious special status amid the hoarse bellowing, barking dogs and random shootings in the camp outside their compound. Every now and then an SS subordinate attacks one of the forgers, but Herzog intervenes to protect “my Jews.” He speaks to the prisoners encouragingly, calling them “co-workers.”

He treats them to cigarettes, decent food, a phonograph and a ping-pong table. “I’m interested in managing people,” he declares. “That’s where the future lies.” Herzog probably survived the war to become a human relations director.

The Jews in the Nazi forgery ring are a mixed lot. A former officer of the Royal Prussian Bank takes great umbrage at working with Sally, a professional criminal. One group of prisoners form a swing vocal group, derided by others as “nigger music.” A Communist called Burger advocates rebellion. Sally, a master gambler, thinks the odds are poor. But when Burger begins to sabotage the fake dollar notes in his own war against Nazism, Sally tries to talk him down from his risky endeavor while steadfastly refusing to turn him in. Memorably played with laconic terseness by Karl Markovics, Sally is a principled criminal focused on his own survival yet willing to help others survive.

He will play a rigged game with a crooked dealer in order to buy time. He sees no other move. And like most of his fellow prisoners, Sally takes professional pride in his handiwork. Perfecting the pound note was winning the championship. Duplicating the dollar is Olympic gold. Should Sally have gambled on his own life by vigorously thwarting Nazi designs? Given the murderousness of the SS, it would have been a fool’s bet. Should he have willingly surrendered his life to oppose evil? He could argue that someone else would have filled his role and that, anyway, survival was the best revenge. They are all rational arguments, which did not prevent Sally from suffering the twisting knife of guilt.