The Counterfeiters is an Austrian film that depicts the story of Operation Bernhard, the Nazi plot to forge British and American currency during World War II. The film, based on the book, The Devil’s Workshop, by real-life Bernhard-survivor Adolf Burger, revolves around the character of Salomon Sorowitsch, played by Austrian actor Karl Markovics. Sorowitsch, a composite of a number of real-life characters, is an underworld figure in Berlin before the Holocaust who is nabbed by Gestapo officer Friedrich Herzog (played by Devid Striesow) trying to forge U.S. currency.
Sorowitsch, labeled both a Jew and habitual criminal by the Nazis, eventually finds himself in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp with a number of other prisoners whose pre-war activities ranged from the criminal to art, printing and banking. These prisoners, housed together in a camp within the camp are marshaled under Herzog (now an important SS officer) to forge the British pound and then the U.S. dollar. Once these men had successfully forged the currency, the Nazis planned to use it to sabotage the economies of the Allied nations.
As the prisoners work on perfecting their forgeries, they face a number of internal conflicts: Adolf Burger, an activist imprisoned for printing anti-Nazi leaflets, surreptitiously sabotages the efforts of the team, so as not to assist the Nazis in their war effort. In doing so, not only does he put the whole group at peril, he comes into conflict with Sorowitsch, who wants to complete the project. Sorowitsch sees their work as a means to survive, but also seeks to complete the dollar out of some deep-seated criminal ambition to do what has never been done.
All of the film’s main characters exhibit a certain dichotomy of character: Sorowitsch, though a criminal, lives by a code, refuses to rat out a fellow prisoner, and in the end works to finish his assignment and protect his comrades. Herzog, though officially a member of the SS, deeply admires Sorowitsch and privately admits to him that he is a Nazi in name only and bares no ill-will toward the Jews. The dichotomy of Herzog is further revealed in a surreal scene in which he invites Sorowitsch to his palatial home to meet his picture-perfect wife and children. In a bizarre yet genuine scene, the three adults sit is Herzog's parlor drinking tea. Mrs. Herzog is clearly exhilarated at the notion of having a real, live Jew and habitual criminal sitting in her home.
Though The Counterfeiters does not dive heavily into the details of the counterfeiting process, it intensely bears the souls of the prisoners who struggle with tremendous issues of guilt: They are treated to good food, showers, civilian clothes, sheets and real beds as their brethren in the rest of the Sachsenhausen camp are systematically murdered.
In the end, the film conveys a message of renewal. We see that through action, one can purge oneself of guilt: both that of the habitual criminal and that of the Holocaust survivor.
Sources: Jonathan Lord served as AICE Program Director from 2007-2010.