24 November 2007 | Chris Knipp
The moral dilemma of helping madmen
The story of Die Fälscher had to be told because it is a unique one that reveals both an extraordinary Jeweish experience under the Nazis, that of the arch-counterfeiter and surviver Salomon Sorowitsch (or "Sallie," Karl Markovics), and another level of Third Reich insanity, their idea, or somebody's, of flooding the market with fake pounds sterling and American dollars and thus somehow bringing down the Allies through economic sabotage, late in the game.
On the other hand when one compares this film with something with the grandeur of sweeping Holocaust films like Spielberg's Schindler's List and Polanski's The Pianist, or the poetry of Lajos Koltai's Fateless (Sorstalanság), Ruzowitzsky's film seems somehow pinched and narrow-minded. It's a good story and a tense one but it dos not sing and it will not change your life.
One reason is that the Russian-born Sallie--his story framed by inconclusive later episodes of his gambling after the war-- is such an unappealing figure. He is an ugly little hard-faced man, expressionless at key moments, and extremely difficult to care about. And nobody cares about him. When he gets syphoned off with some others from the direct path to concentration camp death at Mauthausen to work on the Nazi's mad secret project , he is the key to its success. There are bankers, printers, graphic designers, lithographers ; not evidently any other counterfeiters at all, but we take it on faith that he is an ace at the trade, worthy to head up any team aimed at creating banknotes foolproof enough to survive repeated scrutiny in massive quantities. The other men on the team bow to him, because he alone can maintain quality control and make the project a success. But do they want to make it a success? Herein lies the obvious dilemma. For Sorowitsch, survival is the priority. At the opposite extreme, Adolf Burger (August Diehl), a collotype specialist whose printing experience was for leftist political purposes, sabotaging the project is the only real option.
All we know is that SS Chief Inspector Herzog (David Striesow) supervises this business; and it was he who arrested Sorowitsch in the first place. Sorowitsch has managed to gain favor in the camp by putting himself forward as a gifted sketch artist who does portraits of officers families. Apparently this has gone on for years before the counterfeiting scheme began. The screenplay is a bit vague about the background of this effort, who approved it, who masterminded it; obviously it is essential to the welfare of Herzog. But as the Nazis' situation becomes increasingly desperate and Berger's efforts to block the making of a perfect dollar keep succeeding, Herzog himself is in trouble.
There are other important characters that give the story life. The sweet young Russian boy Kolya (Sebastian Urzendowsky) is a purist, living only for his individual style and his love of the classic Russian modernists. Unfortunately he has tuberculosis, and no one can save him, not the resident doctor, Klinger (August Zirner), nor Sallie with his bargaining power over the increasingly desperate Herzog.
All this definitely holds your attention in its rather terrible grip. The duel between Sallie and the idealistic Burger achieves a tormenting level of moral complexity. Sallie is selfish, but in saving himself he is saving the whole team; in wanting to become a martyr Burger is volunteering the others for martyrdom without their permission. in between there are drones and bankers who simply want to do a job and if possible somehow also stay alive. Outside the counterfeiting team's little compound where the beds have nice linen terrible things happen, and sometimes the terror penetrates in to them too.
The most powerful sequence is at war's end when the "real" concentration camp prisoners, dirty, bleeding, and skeletal, creep into the money makers barracks with guns, unable to believe they are prisoners. This sets the experience in the context of nightmare horror and grasps a minute of the awesome poetry of Fateless' final moments, when the fifteen-year-old György Köves wanders into Budapest and takes a tram wearing his prison stripes. Otherwise, good acting and a compelling story still aren't enough to put this in the first rank of films of this genre.