Based on the memoir The Devil's Workshop by Nazi concentration-camp survivor Adolf Burger, this 2008 Academy Award winner for best foreign language film dramatizes a still largely unknown, stranger-than-fiction chapter in Holocaust history: the Nazi plan to destroy the Allied economy by flooding Europe with counterfeit currency. It would go down as the largest counterfeiting plot in history, but perhaps the strangest part is that the most delicate work was entrusted to imprisoned Jews.
Monte Carlo, 1945. A mysterious stranger (Karl Markovics) enters the lavish Hotel de Paris, deposits piles of foreign currency in the hotel's vault, buys himself a haircut and a bespoke suit, then hits the casino where he wins -- big. He even finds himself a lover for the evening, but when he undresses in his suite, she's horrified to find a five-digit number tattooed on his inner arm. This stranger is no international playboy, and the money he's left in care of the hotel probably isn't real either. He's the notorious counterfeiter Salomon Sorowitsch, lately of the Nazi concentration camp at Sachsenhausen where he, along with a handful of other prisoners, become key players in a bizarre plot to undermine the Allied economy while funding the Nazi war machine.
Flashback to 1936. Academy trained, Russian-born artist and forger Salomon Sorowitch is arrested at his Berlin flat by CID Friedrich Herzog (Devid Striesow), not because he's Jewish but because Sorowitch is known across Europe as the "king of counterfeiters," and it's Herzog's pleasure to place him under arrest and ship him off to the horrendous concentration camp at Mauthausen. Three years later, Sorowitch and Herzog meet again, but Herzog is no longer a lowly police inspector: He's now an SS-Sturmbannfuhrer entrusted by Himmler himself with a top-secret project, and he orders Sorowitch transferred to Sachsenhausen where, in a secluded section of the camp, he joins the "elite" group of imprisoned Jewish printers, bankers, artists, photographers, and graphic artists who have recruited for Operation Bernhard: a top-secret effort to destroy the British economy and fund the German war and espionage efforts by printing millions of counterfeit British pound notes. Sorowitch is given the job of overseeing the crucial retouching that will hopefully make the notes indistinguishable from the real thing, and as a "motivating" factor, he's promised slightly better conditions than what his fellow prisoners are suffering beyond the high walls surrounding the secret compound. Regardless of the preferential treatment, Sorowitch knows that succeed or fail, they'll all eventually be sent to the gas chambers, but there's an even more immediate threat coming from within. When Herzog declares the fake pound sterling notes virtually perfect, he orders Sorowitch and his men to turn their attention to the American dollar. Burger (August Diehl), a committed Communist, knows that should the U.S. economy fail, Germany will win the war, and he begins endangering all their lives by boldly sabotaging the gelatin dollar negatives need to reproduced the U.S. bills.
Though extensively fictionalized -- Sorowitch is loosely based on the notorious, larger-than-life forger Salomon Smolianoff; Herzog on SS officer Bernhard Krueger, after whom the operation was named -- Austrian writer-director Stefan Ruzowitzky includes a lot of the peculiar challenges faced by the men of Operation Bernhard, like how to reproduce the exactly texture of English currency paper (you use rags instead of fine linen) or imitating the wear and tear a real bill in circulation would eventually take on. But by focusing on Sorowitch and the conflicted consciences of his fellow prisoners, Jews who knew they were saving their own skins by contributing, however involuntarily and indirectly, to the possible triumph of Third Reich, Ruzowitzky also dodges a bullet: He doesn't have to dwell on the thorny fact that like Oskar Schindler, Krueger was a Nazi who ultimately did save the lives of "his Jews." Instead, her fictional counterpart Herzog is presented as an unctuous coward and half-witted anti-Semite. It's a safe approach to a difficult historical problem, but half as interesting as the truth. leave a comment --Ken Fox