Starring: Karl Markovics, August Diehl and Devid Striesow
Director: Stefan Ruzowitzky
THIS is an extraordinarily well-crafted Austrian-German film, which won the Oscar for the best foreign movie in 2008 and was nominated for best direction at the German Film Awards and Berlin International Film Festival in 2007.
It tells the factual story, based on Adolf Burger’s book, The Devil’s Workshop, about a Nazi plan to destroy the economy of the UK by flooding it with counterfeit British pounds.
The movie focuses on the story of Salomon Sorowitsch, the chief counterfeiter (played brilliantly by Karl Markovics), who is rescued from Auschwitz to run Operation Bernhard and who is set apart by the Nazis among other captive Jewish professionals to help the Nazis finance their war effort.
The counterfeiters are protected by the Nazis for their own purposes while unspeakable horrors go on around them, but this movie is all about the moral dilemmas facing the men who are ordered to put their skills to work for the “noble” Nazi cause.
The film is a gripping story about moral choice, and it confronts the viewer in almost every conceivable way.
What would be our choice in similar circumstances – to preserve moral integrity, use our skills to survive through self-interest, or be complicit in tolerating (and reinforcing) the tragic loss of life of fellow human beings in a place where prisoners are abused and killed for no reason?
The film pits opportunity against cowardice and raises significant questions about the motivations of the Nazi officers who are not completely idealistic themselves and who also struggle to survive just like the counterfeiters.
The film agues forcibly that there is no easy solution to the moral dilemmas it shows.
The act of counterfeiting cannot ultimately succeed and the lives of fellow concentration-inmates are permanently at risk.
The counterfeiters have made the choice to survive and the movie explores compellingly the costs of their choice.
There is strong violence in the movie and the film is rated appropriately. It has visual depictions of sex and nudity but never is the display gratuitous though their depiction has to be a warning for some.
This film is grim and unsettling but it is brilliantly executed and it poses issues and questions that will linger in our minds.
It cleverly uses a little humour along the way and the strategy works.
This reviewer nearly always objects to the introduction of humour into the depiction of circumstances that are completely tragic but the introduction of light-hearted elements in this film makes bearable our consideration of genuine questions about the human vulnerability of people pushed to their limits.
The movie is magnificently scripted, but it is not for the faint-hearted.
It gives a unique view of how human beings adopt different approaches in their struggle to survive.
The counterfeiters don’t maintain their self-respect in the same way; life for them is a tragic mix of behaving inconsistently and enduring personal anguish and guilt at many levels; and the film captures brilliantly all of their efforts to cope.
The film’s style, direction and the dark, brooding cinematography by Benedict Neuenfels set it apart from other movies dealing with why the Nazis did what they did.
If there is a single message in this film, it is that after seeing it we know that we need to think much more understandingly and knowingly about the moral issues associated with the choices made by all people trapped in desperate human circumstances.