Salomon Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics) is a professional criminal, a master counterfeiter and a Jew. He winds up in a brutal Nazi labor camp because of all three. Sally also is a survivor. He's not idealistic about Judaism, he knows how prisons work and how to survive. His goal is simple: Do whatever it takes to stay alive and try to use every bit of guile and opportunism he has to get more food and to escape the work designed to kill the inmates. He winds up being jeered as a Jew but painting heroic portraits of SS officers and their families.
One night you might say his luck changes. He's transported to Sachsenhausen concentration camp and encounters Sturmbannfuhrer Freidrich Herzog (Devid Striesow), the man who arrested him. Now Herzog is in charge of Operation Bernhard, a top-secret project endorsed by Himmler: Find a way to counterfeit British pounds that are so perfect they won't be detected. These counterfeits will be used by the Nazis to flood Britain and destroy its economy. Sorowitsch and a group of Jewish prisoners -- skilled typographers, printers, artists, paper experts -- are taken to a top-secret, walled section of Sachsenhausen and put to work. If they succeed, they live, for a while. If they fail, they die. They succeed so well with the pound that the Nazis decide to use the stuff to buy their own war needs. But now the prisoners also have the task of counterfeiting American $100 bills. Same deal: Succeed, live; fail, die. One prisoner, Adolph Burger (August Diehl), says he will sabotage the project by deliberately showing it down. It makes for a tense moral dilemma. Burger is prepared to be shot. He's also prepared to take the others with him. The others, naturally enough, don't agree.
For Sally the pragmatist, all he knows is that they are alive while others just beyond the wall are dead. They all can hear the pleading and the gunshots. By working, Sally and the others have better food, showers once a week, softer beds and some shaky security as long as their project is needed. They still endure brutal treatment by their SS guards, but at least they're alive. Sally intends to survive, but he probably surprises himself as he finds ways to help some of the other prisoners and to delay the project enough to matter but not enough to see people shot. And it should be said that Sally the expert is in a position to have the material and presses he needs to finally produce a perfect counterfeit, something he was never able to accomplish before. His British pounds are so good they're accepted by the Swiss and verified by the Bank of England.
The Counterfeiters is an intriguing mixture of tense thriller and Nazi brutality. It is a taut story permeated with the fear of death, arbitrary and pointless. You're suspected of having tuberculosis because you cough? An SS guard simply takes you out to the courtyard, makes you kneel and fires a bullet in your brain. No matter how useful you might be, you're still just a Jew.
The movie is based on Adolph Burger's memoirs, but was significantly tweaked, with Burger's approval, by the director/screenwriter Stefan Ruzowitzky. Karl Markovics as Salomon "Sally" Sorowitsch gives an excellent performance. Markovics is a tough-looking actor who probably has had the best role of his career. Sorowitsch is based on Salomon Smolianoff, a wily Russian career criminal and master forger.
Right after the war says Burger, "I told my friend Salomon, `Please promise me you will never counterfeit again.' He promised me he wouldn't do it any more. So we shook hands, and I have never seen him again." Now 91, Burger still gives talks to schoolchildren about the horrors the German's wreaked and, sometimes, about counterfeiting.