During World War II, dozens of Jews skilled in the printing trade were placed in isolated, top-secret barracks within the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. There, under threat of death, they counterfeited British currency worth more than £130 million. Nazi spies deposited these forged notes in bank accounts throughout Europe. Upon inspection, even the Bank of England believed that the bills were genuine. The Nazis called it Operation Bernhard, and it was the largest counterfeit scheme in history.
The Counterfeiters (Stefan Ruzowitsky, 2007), winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, is based on these real events, as documented in Adolf Burger’s book The Devil’s Workshop. Salomon “Sally” Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics), the film’s protagonist, is a fictionalized character, loosely based on a notorious counterfeiter Burger befriended while imprisoned in Sachsenhausen.
In his life before the war, Sally is a self-satisfied criminal, ladies’ man, and “the world’s best counterfeiter.” A gifted illustrator, he attends a prestigious art school in Russia but wonders, “Why make money making art, when I can make money making money?”
Before the war, Sally is arrested in Berlin for attempting to counterfeit American dollars. Because he is Jewish, he is eventually transported to Auschwitz. There, he is given extra food for painting portraits of SS officers and their families and a Nazi-glorifying mural outside the camp.
Transferred to Sachsenhausen, Sally becomes head of quality control for Operation Bernhard. He and his fellow inmates will be killed if they fail to successfully counterfeit the British pound and the American dollar, But they are also certain that they will be killed after the operation is complete, and they know that their success in counterfeiting is funding the Nazi war effort.
For Sally there is a profound irony to his role in Operation Bernhard. He has been provided with the most modern machinery and an elite team of skilled craftsmen and forced to utilize his greatest skills for what—in his life before the war—would have been his crowning achievement. Part of the fascination this film holds is in watching the details of the counterfeiting operation, seeing a master craftsman at work perfecting his masterpiece. When Adolf Burger (August Diehl) suggests to Sally that they sabotage their own efforts, Sally resists, arguing they will all be killed. “Is this about surviving—or proving that you can forge the dollar?” Burger challenges.
Throughout the film, Sally’s survive-another-day-at-all-costs mentality comes into conflict with Burger’s political idealism. The Counterfeiters is a compelling drama, a cinematic masterwork, and a significant contribution to the body of movies about the Holocaust, on a par with Schindler’s List and The Pianist.