Year Released: 2008
Directed by: Stefan Ruzowitzky
Starring: Karl Markovics, August Diehl, Devid Striesow
(R, 99 min.)
"Man’s inhumanity to man / Makes countless thousands mourn!" Roberts Burns
They have fresh linens, decent food, and even opera music piped into their barbed wire barracks. Their task: to create the perfect counterfeits in order to fund the Nazi war machine and simultaneously to destroy the economies of England and America. The burdens of these prisoners are not of the flesh but of the soul, a delicate balance between the will to survive and a defiant call to honor.
The grand survivor of all is Solomon Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics), a gifted Russian artist who has decided to put his talents to a more lucrative use – counterfeiting. His passports are impeccable and his currency easily passes for genuine. And despite his ugly mug, “Solly” is quite successful with the ladies, too, a fact that actually leads to his undoing. Bags packed, since he fears 1936 Berlin has become a little too hot for him, he postpones his hasty departure to assist a lovely lady requiring a passport to Argentina. One perfect passport, a few tangos, and a night of passion later Solly is still in his digs when Superintendent Friedrich Herzog (Devid Striesow) comes to arrest him. Since he is a Jew, Solly is not sent to prison but to a concentration camp.
Even there he lives relatively well, garnering small indulgences as he flatters his captors with heroic sketches of them. His expertise soon brings him to a slightly upgraded camp, Sachsenhausen, where he meets his old Nemesis, Superintendent Herzog, now in charge of a secret program to flood the market with bogus English pounds and dollars. His team of prisoners comes from all countries and walks of life – bankers, technicians, and even artists. The focus here is not on the usual concentration camp brutality, but on the moral dilemma these prisoners face, forced to aid and abet their enemies in insidious ways.
Even in their safe quarters the can still hear the agonies, death screams, and peremptory shootings facing the regular prisoners in the adjacent barracks. They are also aware that as soon as they are successful, their lives are just as vulnerable, maybe even more so, since they will have guilty knowledge. Finally, for every day they secure their lives with the counterfeiting project, they fear that the war and its atrocities will live on as well. Each copes in his own way.
Adolf Burger (August Diehl), upon whose memoirs the film is based, is an idealist who has had to leave his young wife at Auswitsch. He insists that as a matter of principle, the team should resist, even if it means their lives. Solly disagrees and refuses to “reward the Nazis” by being ashamed of his will to live, but he will not turn in Burger when he then sabotages their work – “honor among thieves,” as he says. He is able to persuade Herzog that technical problems are behind the delay, but the reprieve is only temporary. The men will face certain death if they do not succeed soon.
It is all Solly can do to ward off Zilinsky (Andreas Schmidt), who reasons that turning in Burger is the only way to save themselves. Solly’s balancing act also means shielding a tubercular Russian kinsman – discovery of his disease would mean certain death – and he also has to put up with the scorn of a respected banker on the team who cannot tolerate having to work with a “common criminal.”
Director and screenwriter Rusowitzky then throws some more debris into this gray abyss when he has Burger suggest some of Solly’s motivation is pure vanity. He has never been able to crack the U.S. dollar, and now he has everything at his disposal to do it. Everyone tries to justify his existential choice. Burger protests his ideals, Zilinsky, the lives of the team, and Solly flatly his own will to survive. Even Herzog boasts of his enlightened treatment of the men, his tenderness as a father. He has never been a Nazi, he confides in Solly. In fact, in his youth, he was a communist. He, too, acquiesces only to survive.
Also noteworthy are the subtle ways the horrors of the war introduce themselves, perhaps making them even more repugnant. The fine suits given to the elite counterfeit team still bear the names of the dead men from whom they’ve been gleaned. When Solly asks for original passports to use as models for his forgeries, the photos of young innocents tumble from their folds, filling a cardboard-boxed graveyard of faces turned to dust.
Do not look for easy answers, or perhaps any answers at all in this year’s Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film. Instead, savor the acting, particularly Karl Markovics’, who somehow conveys his deepest emotions behind his thug’s face of stoic indifference. Inhale the atmosphere and take heed of the bleak portrayal of evil that lurks at our doorstep in ever changing garb.
In the camps, the men mostly survive on thin watery soups and thick slabs of bread they sop in it. But perhaps Solly and the young Russian artist he befriends remember better times from the old country. Let’s cook them one of the great comfort foods of Mother Russia, as elegant as the Count whose name it bears: Beef Stroganoff.
You may like to accompany it with Classic Russian Borscht
Beef and Barley Soup
- 2 pounds beef chuck roast
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 4 ounces butter
- 4 green onions, sliced (white parts only)
- 4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 1 (10.5 ounce) can condensed beef broth
- 1 teaspoon prepared mustard
- 1 (6 ounce) can sliced mushrooms, drained
- 1/3 cup sour cream
- 1/3 cup white wine
- salt and ground black pepper to taste
- Remove any fat and gristle from the roast and cut into strips 1/2 inch thick by 2 inches long. Season with 1/2 teaspoon of both salt and pepper.
- In a large skillet over medium heat, melt the butter and brown the beef strips quickly, then push the beef strips off to one side. Add the onions and cook slowly for 3 to 5 minutes, then push to the side with the beef strips.
- Stir the flour into the juices on the empty side of the pan. Pour in beef broth and bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Lower the heat and stir in mustard. Cover and simmer for 1 hour or until the meat is tender.
- Five minutes before serving, stir in the mushrooms, sour cream, and white wine. Heat briefly then salt and pepper to taste.
Serve over noodles or rice.
Recipe Source: All Recipes.com