Program Length: 95 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 1080p
Languages (Feature): German Dolby TrueHD 5.1, French Dolby TrueHD 5.1
Languages (Supplements): English Stereo, German Stereo
Subtitles: English, English SDH, French, Spanish
“I’d rather be gassed tomorrow than shot for nothing today. A day is a day.” – Concentration camp inmate Salomon Sorowitsch
Winner of the 2007 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, The Counterfeiters is a remarkable movie which has certainly earned the accolades it has received. Karl Markovics stars in a brilliant performance as Salomon “Solly” Sorowitsch, a Jew who has made a comfortable life for himself in Berlin as a forger and counterfeiter. As the Nazis begin to round up and arrest Jews, Solly shows little outward concern but begins to make plans to flee Germany. Unfortunately, he waits too long and is arrested and sent to a concentration camp, where he becomes a slave laborer and lives in unspeakable conditions. He quickly sizes up the situation and recognizes that only the strongest will survive. Through wits and sheer willpower, he manages to keep himself alive. He makes his artistic abilities known to his captors, and he begins to receive better treatment in return for drawing their portraits.
Then, as Germany’s fortunes take a turn for the worse in 1944, Solly and several other inmates are summoned to appear before an SS officer – the same officer, it turns out, who arrested Solly in Berlin years earlier. To their surprise, the prisoners are given civilian clothing and are transferred to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where they are put to work on “Operation Bernhard” – the largest and most prolific counterfeiting enterprise of all time.
Initially, the Nazi plan is to flood Great Britain with counterfeit Bank of England notes, thereby destroying the British economy. The inmates who are pressed into service possess various skills which are needed to produce counterfeit bills and other forged documents. Solly, who before the war was known throughout Europe as the “King of the Counterfeiters,” is put to work in an effort to perfect the counterfeit Bank of England notes. Happy to receive clothing, a soft bed, adequate rations and relatively humane treatment, Solly throws himself into his work. Less enthusiasm is shown by the printer, Adolf Burger (August Diehl), upon whose memoirs The Counterfeiters is based. Burger recognizes what the other counterfeiters fail to see, that their work may help Germany win the war. When the Nazis demand that Solly and his crew begin to make counterfeit dollars, Burger resists. The prisoners then have to make the most difficult decision of all – do they continue to stay alive by doing the bidding of their captors, thereby prolonging the war, or do they risk everything by sabotaging Operation Bernhard?
There is one truly surreal scene where Herzog (Devid Striesow), the somewhat conflicted SS officer who is in charge of the operation, takes Solly to his home to meet his wife and children. Herzog, realizing that the war is lost, asks Solly to forge Swiss passports for him and his family. Mrs. Herzog (Hille Beseler) is remarkably ill-at-ease at she sits in her living room and tries to strike up a cheerful conversation with a Jewish prisoner.
The acting is uniformly excellent. In addition to Markovics, Diehl, and Striesow, a strong and chilling performance is turned in by Martin Brambach as Holst, the sadistic second-in-command.
The film moves along in a brisk 95 minutes, and there is plenty of tension and suspense along the way. It is not for the faint of heart, for there is a fair amount of graphic brutality (none of which is gratuitous). There also is a disturbing scene in which Solly is humiliated in a most demeaning way by Holst. The Counterfeiters is a film which will remain in your head and force you to consider how you might respond if placed in similar circumstances. Even though the prisoners know that the Nazis intend to execute them eventually, Solly reminds them that “A day is a day.”
The 1080p Blu-ray widescreen transfer is sharp, but those who dislike grain should be aware of the fact that it is quite grainy, and deliberately so. The grain and the occasional use of hand-held cameras serve to give the film the feel of a documentary, and to me those qualities help create an appropriate sense of time and place. The colors are accurate but generally subdued, which one would expect given the subject matter. The 1.85:1 framing appears to be proper, and I detected no signs of edge enhancement or digital cleansing. Shadow detail is quite good, which is important given that much of the action takes place in marginal lighting conditions. Given the aspect ratio, the subtitles by necessity appear in the picture frame, but they are relatively unobtrusive and are easy to read.
I chose the original German Dolby Digital TrueHD 5.1 audio, and it is very good. The film has an interesting music soundtrack, which includes decades-old tangos recorded by the Argentine harmonica player Hugo Diaz and vintage opera recordings (the Nazis allowed the counterfeiters to listen to recordings while they worked). The music is replicated quite nicely. There is not a lot of work for subwoofers, but the noise of the counterfeiters at work, with the printing press running, sounds very realistic.
This Blu-ray release of The Counterfeiters has quite a few extras which also appear on the standard DVD release. As noted above, all of the supplementary materials can be heard in English.
There is a commentary by director Stefan Ruzowitzky, whose English is more than adequate. There is also a rather interesting “making of” featurette, but even more fascinating is “Adolf Burger’s Artifacts.” Burger, who is still alive and approaching his 91st birthday, wrote his book “The Devil’s Workshop” in response to Holocaust deniers in Europe. He assembled a substantial collection of photographic and documentary evidence about what actually occurred in Nazi concentration camps.
The disc also contains interviews with Ruzowitzky, Burger and Karl Markovics and a question-and-answer session with Ruzowitzky. Also include are several brief deleted scenes, none of which would have added much to the final cut of the film.
Also included is the original theatrical trailer (happily, Sony now seems to be including the trailer on its Blu-ray releases) and trailers for a plethora of other Sony films, some of which have not yet been released on home video: Errol Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure, Redbelt, Youth Without Youth, Sleuth, Persepolis, Steep, The Fall, The Lives of Others, Black Book, Married Life, and The Jane Austen Book Club.
There are also BD Live features which I am unable to access with my Blu-ray player.
The single disc comes in a standard Blu-ray keepcase.
The Final Analysis
The Counterfeiters is a superb film which sheds light on an aspect of World War II which will probably be new to most viewers. It raises numerous philosophical questions about the lengths to which people will go to stay alive, as well as the issue of which is more important - the physical well-being of a group, or the consciences of the individuals within that group.
This is an excellent Blu-ray disc and is highly recommended.
Equipment used for this review:
Panasonic DMP-BD10A DVD Player
Sharp LC-42D62U LCD display
Yamaha HTR-5890 THX Surround Receiver
BIC Acoustech speakers
Interconnects: Monster Cable
Release Date: August 5, 2008