It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
Even if you didn't know that Stefan Ruzowitsky's "The Counterfeiters" was a 2007 Oscar nominee for best foreign language film, you'd probably guess it was, anyway. This Austrian drama about the Nazis' top secret Operation Bernhard, the largest counterfeiting scheme of all time, is paradoxically all too good at fitting the horrors of the Holocaust into a prestige movie format. Predictably, it won the Oscar.
That assessment sounds harsh, and cynical, and it seems a shame to look at the movie that way. After all, "The Counterfeiters" is based on a fascinating piece of history, raises some wrenching moral dilemmas about the costs of survival under the Nazis, and was no doubt made with noble intentions beyond the usual commercial ones. The trouble is that the storytelling and filmmaking are routine (surely faux-documentary handheld camerawork is the most overused cliche in modern movies), even when the human drama is not.
"It takes a clever man to make money. It takes a genius to stay alive," says the movie's U.K. tagline. You may be reminded of the elderly Mr. Bernstein in "Citizen Kane," who says: "It's no trick to make a lot of money ... if all you want is to make a lot of money." When master counterfeiter Salomon "Sally" Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics) is arrested in Berlin, he's sent to a concentration camp and eventually put in charge of a team of inmates assigned to do just that: make a lot of money. Friedrich Herzog (Devid Striesow), the very man who apprehended Sorowitsch in 1936, becomes his Nazi overseer in Operation Bernhard, a scheme to print millions of British pounds and U.S. dollars to fund the Nazi war effort and undermine Allied economies.
For the concentration camp prisoners at Sachsenhausen, many of whom have labored under far worse conditions elsewhere, this assignment offers an opportunity to survive, perhaps for more than one day at a time. The men are given real beds, food, a weekly shower and something else of no-less-precious intangible value: a glimmer of humanity. One man breaks down and weeps when he sees a printing press again. Another says he had the same reaction when he was first chosen for this work detail: "It reminds you that you're human."