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When it comes to historical drama, there are few eras which can pull the crowds like the Third Reich. On Sunday, Feb. 24, such a movie won an Oscar for best foreign-language film.
"The Counterfeiters" sheds light on a little-known chapter of Nazi history
Germany's Nazi past has been a recurrent theme in films made in the country in recent years. From "Downfall," which controversially portrayed the human side of Hitler, to a recent irreverent comedy about the Nazi dictator called "Mein Führer: The Truly Truest Truth About Adolf Hitler," German films have been breaking new ground by using humor and irony to tackle issues still sensitive in the country.
The latest film, "The Counterfeiters," sheds light on a little-known chapter of Nazi history. It tells the spectacular tale of the largest forgery operation of all time, conducted from within the squalor of one of Hitler's concentration camps.
For the last three years of the Second World War, 142 prisoners in the Sachsenhausen camp, north of Berlin, were forced by their captors to counterfeit millions of British and US banknotes in an attempt to bring the enemy economies to their knees.
A film scene depicting the wooden huts of the workshop
It was an ambitious plan, but the most astonishing thing about it was the way in which it was executed. In two shielded wooden huts within the barbed wire confines of the camp, the men -- some of them were trained printers while others had experiences in counterfeiting -- were granted a life of relative comfort and provided enough food, soft beds and proper toilets. In return they used their professional expertise to forge money.
A first-rate printing workshop was set up inside the two huts and the counterfeiters became part of a state secret which kept them alive while thousands of prisoners were being murdered and starved to death around them. The men came to call the workshop their "golden cage."
The devil's workshop
The film, directed by Austrian Stefan Ruzowitzky, is based on a true account of the forgery workshop as told in Adolf Burger's book "Des Teufels Werkstatt" (The Devil's Workshop). It follows a character called Salomon Sorowitsch, loosely based on a notorious counterfeiter of that time named Salomon Smolianoff.
The existence of the concentration camp forgery mill is a relatively little-known chapter in Nazi history, but the producers of "The Counterfeiters," Babette Schröder and Nina Bohlmann, immediately recognized the potential of the story when they came across Burger's book.
The Sachsenhausen concentration camp
Schröder and Bohlmann said they first read the book six years ago and thought the story would make an interesting movie. After considering different ways of reworking the material, they approached Adolf Burger about adapting it for the silver screen.
They also talked to Ruzowitzky, who said he was immediately drawn by the universal nature of the material.
"Asking whether people should play table-tennis in a concentration camp when others around them are being tortured to death is the same as asking whether we should be allowed to live such affluent, protected lives when there is so much suffering the world," Ruzowitzky said.
Issues of conscience
Burger worked with Ruzowitzky as an advisor on the script and accompanied the production as it progressed. Although some of the historical details, such as the prisoners' release, are not entirely in keeping with what really happened, Schröder and Bohlmann have tried to show the issues of conscience facing the counterfeiters.
"What fascinated us about the story was that there were two huts in the middle of this huge concentration camp in which the prisoners were allowed to live under better conditions than everyone else," the producer-duo said. "They knew about the atrocities on the far side of their wooden walls, they could hear it day by day, but they couldn't do anything about it."
Dangerous game of sabotage
Karl Markovics plays Salomon Sorowitsch
During their period of "privileged" imprisonment, Burger and his fellow prisoners knew that if they co-operated with their captors, they stood a chance of survival, but that if they sabotaged the efforts to flood the Allied economies, they would face certain death. For some, questions of conscience were at play; for others, the survival instinct was the greatest.
For producers Schröder and Bohlmann, it was the character of Salomon Smolinoff that was the most interesting. Author Adolf Burger describes in his book how the counterfeiter labored to produce the perfect dollar note. The results however were never quite satisfactory because other prisoners were sabotaging his efforts without his knowledge, the producer-duo said.
Their stalling tactics could not go on forever, and ultimately the dollar did go into production in Sachsenhausen. But by then the Allies were well on their way to Berlin and there wasn't enough time to mass produce the counterfeited notes. The bills they did manage to print, along with the 134 million British pounds, stamps and other forged documents are believed to have been sunk in Austria's Lake Toplitz.
Reaching a wide audience
A film scene from "The Counterfeiters"
In a note of introduction to his book, Burger states: "This book was written in order that people don't forget what happened."
The makers and producers of the film have taken that message to heart.
"We have to tell the stories of the Holocaust, and we are morally obliged to do it in such a way that we reach as many people as possible," Ruzowitzky said. "In that sense even a film about the Holocaust should contain elements of excitement and entertainment. 'The Counterfeiters' is an entertaining film."