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The Counterfeiters DVD Review

The Counterfeiters (2007) movie poster The Counterfeiters (Die Fälscher)

US Theatrical Release: February 22, 2008 / Running Time: 99 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: Stefan Ruzowitzky / Writers: Stefan Ruzowitzky (screenplay); Adolf Burger (book)

Cast: Karl Markovics (Sorowitsch), August Diehl (Burger), Devid Striesow (Sturmbannführer Herzog), Martin Brambach (Hauptscharführer Holst), August Zirner (Dr. Klinger), Veit Stübner (Atze), Sebastian Urzendowsky (Kolya), Andreas Schmidt (Zilinski), Tilo Prückner (Hahn), Lenn Kudrjawizki (Loszek)

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By Aaron Wallace

If any event in history is worth making a movie about, it's the Holocaust. There's been no shortage of documentaries on the subject and dramatized accounts have been in dozens of major feature films. Most often it's the American perspective on the era that finds an audience, at least stateside,
but less common and more intriguing is the chance to look back at the tragedy through European eyes. After all, it was in Europe that the Nazi concentration camps were erected and Europe that felt the enduring sting of German aggression during World War II and the decades since.

Life is Beautiful (1998) gave an Italian account of the Holocaust, winning that film four Academy Awards, including Best Foreign Language Film, and serving up one of the most memorable acceptance speeches ever given. A decade later, another Holocaust picture has been crowned with the Foreign Language Oscar: The Counterfeiters. This time, the winner came from Austria, notable because the country had never taken home the award before (and had been previously nominated only once) and also because Austria is Germany's next-door neighbor, having been among the first to fold into the Third Reich, and has German as its official language.

"The Counterfeiters" opens in a happier, post-Holocaust time, providing an immediate light at the end of the very grim tunnel to come. Herzog, the very same man who arrested Sorowitsch, now inspects the counterfeited currency for passibility.

The Counterfeiters is the true story of Salomon Sorowitsch, an infamous counterfeiter who lives large on his ill-gotten spoils until arrested by German police in Berlin and ultimately imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. Though it may have been his downfall in the first place, Sorowitsch's penchant for forgery becomes his saving grace in captivity.

Realizing that their conquest must be as economically formidable as it is militant, the Nazis look to cripple the British and American markets by flooding them with phony currency. To achieve that goal, they look inward at their own cells, where the one-time "King of the Counterfeiters" lies prisoner, using his duplicitous talents merely for portrait painting on behalf of the prison guards.

Thanks to the Germans' new special need, Sorowitsch finds himself promoted to director of a counterfeiting unit responsible for Operation Bernhard, the largest production of forged currency in history. On the other side of the Sachsenhausen camp's wall, Sorowitsch is treated to luxuries that no common prisoner would enjoy. In his new position, he is also able to save the lives of others that he deems integral to his efforts and, as his inmates soon encourage, covertly use the Nazis' dependence on him against them.

In addition to the Nazis' massive forgery project, "The Counterfeiters" also tracks the story of a young man named Kolya (Sebastian Urzendowsky), secretly suffering from tuberculosis -- a disease more frightening because of the Nazis' reaction to it than the prognosis itself. The film's central tension between virtue and self-preservation is underscored by a series of showdowns between protagonist Salomon Sorowitsch (left) and real-life story source Adolf Burger (right).

One part Shawshank and one part Schindler, the film asks its audience the same question Sorowitsch must ask himself: what would you do if given the means to help the suffering if it meant risking the comforts you enjoy yourself? What if it meant risking your life?

A criminal arrested on legitimate grounds, as opposed to the millions of innocents who are being persecuted around him, it is nevertheless Sorowitsch who is granted privilege. The transition from a selfish life of indulgence to responsibility -- not only for his own life but potentially millions of others -- is rife with tension.
That dilemma is the story's dramatic engine and the varied reactions by each character facing it are its fuel. By stalling resolution and interrogating its characters, the film forces the audience to make a decision for itself and that connection with the viewer is chiefly responsible for The Counterfeiters' effectiveness.

Adding immeasurably to that success is the story's roots in historical truth. As with any Holocaust story, the inescapable gravity of the fact that these horrors really happened inside civilization not so long ago impresses a sobering sense of reality on the viewer. Likewise, that a man once actually found himself in such a situation makes the events portrayed in The Counterfeiters that much remarkable. The screenplay is based on The Devil's Workshop, a forthcoming book by Holocaust survivor Adolf Burger, who was actually a part of Operation Bernhard. Sorowitsch never actually existed, at least by that name. Instead, Burger worked under Salomon Smolianoff, the real-life counterpart to Sorowitsch. The film takes liberties with this and many other historical details, notably giving Burger a larger role in the movie than he has ever claimed for himself. Nevertheless, the general framework of the story comes right out of Germany's sad history and is a powerful depiction accordingly.

Despite all that, I can't say that The Counterfeiters made the kind of impression on me that Life is Beautiful did. But then that isn't the fairest comparison to make. Life is Beautiful pulls -- no, yanks -- on the heartstrings. The Counterfeiters strives for more of an intellectual impact. That much it achieves. A strong performance by Karl Markovics in the lead role and a talented supporting cast also make this hard-hitting and stirring drama one to see.

Buy The Counterfeiters on DVD from Amazon.com DVD Details

1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Digital 5.1 (German, French)
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Closed Captioned; Some Extras Subtitled in English
Release Date: August 5, 2008
Suggested Retail Price: $19.99 (Reduced from $28.96)
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9)
Black Keepcase
Also available on Blu-ray Disc ($26.99 SRP)

VIDEO and AUDIO

The movie is presented in its original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio and enhanced for 16x9 displays. Picture quality is consistent throughout, though here that means consistent grain and softness. At least part of that may be intentional -- Ruzowitzky definitely seems intent on a dark and somewhat bleak landscape that transports viewers to the World War II Germany. The grain lends an older, gritty feel to the picture. Of course, a lower budget may also be to blame. This will be most problematic to those watching on larger displays.

There are two Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound tracks on the disc, one in German (the original language) and one in French. Though not a showcase for a multi-channel set-up, the track gets the job done. The volume level is comparatively lower than on most DVDs, so your knob might need turning up a few notches from its usual resting place, but only in the very beginning does the track sound especially restrained.

In addition to the English subtitles, which play automatically, French and Spanish subtitles are available as well. If you want the unadulterated Austrian theatergoing experience, you can also turn subtitles off altogether.

The making-of featurette spends most of its time talking about the back-story but does provide some glimpses behind the scenes, as seen here with Stefan Ruzowitzky providing on-set direction. Holocaust survivor and author Adolf Burger sits down for a new interview on the DVD. Among the documents put on display in "Adolf Burger's Artifacts" is this sheet of counterfeited currency from Operation Bernhard.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING

The bonus features begin with a feature-length audio commentary by director Stefan Ruzowitzky. The director speaks in English but if his accent is too hard for some viewers to decipher, English subtitles are provided as well. The track is a pretty interesting one, as Ruzowitzky spills a lot of details about the movie's development and continually explains why he made the decisions that led to what's seen on screen.
With some great production information and analysis straight from the horse's mouth, this is something to check out for anyone who appreciated the movie itself.

"The Making of the Counterfeiters" (10:02) is an odd making-of featurette, as it's more interested in the true story behind the film than it is in the actual production. That said, there are some really cool glimpses into the filmmaking process and even the material that doesn't truly correspond with the piece's title is interesting. The featurette is in German with English subtitles.

Next up is a collection of three interviews that can be played separately or in automatic succession. The first is with Ruzowitzky (17:55), who again speaks in heavily-accented English with subtitles. The second is an interview with Adolf Burger (9:55), the real-life inspiration for the film and author of The Devil's Workshop. Burger speaks in German with English subtitles. Finally, the movie's star, Karl Markovics (10:22), is interviewed. Like Ruzowitzky, Markovics speaks in English but is also subtitled. All three interviews are a treat, especially Burger's first-hand Holocaust account.

Happily, Burger returns to share more of his incredible stories in "Adolf Burger's Artifacts" (19:12). In this interview piece -- separate from the other interviews -- Burger shares pictures, maps, and even counterfeited money from his time in the concentration camp. First-hand accounts from survivors of the Holocaust are increasingly rare, so it's fortunate that this film and its DVD release provided an occasion to capture one more on video.

Director Salomon Sorowitsch takes questions about "The Counterfeiters" from the audience at AFI Fest. This deleted scene from "The Counterfeiters" expands on Kolya's hidden TB storyline. "The Counterfeiters" DVD's 16x9 main menu changes as the magnifying glass inspects its contents.

"Q&A with Director Stefan Ruzowitzky" (13:15) is exactly what it sounds like, filmed at the AFI Fest in November 2007. This is neat to see but at this point, one starts to notice that Ruzowitzky has had much the same thing to say in the commentary, the making-of, and his interview segment. It's all fine individually but adds up to Ruzowitzky overkill.

The disc presents four deleted scenes: "Aglaia Lowenstein on the Staircase", "Prison", "Saliva Sample", "Burger & Zilinksi".
None of these would have been especially important in the final cut but "Saliva Sample" does make an interesting if slight addition to the movie's subplot about a Bernhard prisoner infected with tuberculosis. Together, the scenes run 3:55.

Rounding out the bonus features is the film's original theatrical trailer (2:10).

The animated 16x9 main menu looks at the movie title and still photos through a magnifying glass. As the glass passes over them, the font changes and the pictures come to life. A selection from the excellent film score plays in the background. The sub-menus are all void of both music and animation, though they carry on the magnifying glass motif. The disc is housed inside a standard black keepcase with no inserts inside it.

The disc opens with Sony's "Blu-ray Disc is High Definition!" promo, followed by previews for When Did You Last See Your Father? and The Band's Visit. From the Special Features menu, one can also watch previews for Redbelt, Standard Operating Procedure, Brick Lane, Married Life, Youth Without Youth, Persepolis, The Lives of Others, Black Book, Sleuth, and The David Lean Collection.

Salomon Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics) is transported to a Nazi concentration camp after his arrest for counterfeiting currency. Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics) puts his skill of forgery to the test at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

The Counterfeiters joins a long line of stirring World War II dramas that have won awards and critical acclaim. A strong lead performance and a unique perspective on the Holocaust makes this a powerful film worth seeing at least once. I suspect a rental will suffice for most but if you'd like the movie as part of your collection, Sony has lined up several interesting bonus features to bolster your purchase.

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Reviewed September 2, 2008.



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