Stefan Ruzowitzky shoots THE COUNTERFEITERS


A crook and an idealist: one of them prints false banknotes and passports, the other leaflets against the regime. The master counterfeiter Sorowitsch and the resistance fighter Burger escape certain death in a concentration camp by producing millions of perfect counterfeit banknotes in the service of the Nazis. Operation Bernhard is the historical background to The Counterfeiters, Stefan Ruzowitzky's new film which portrays a constantly threatened balance of horror between the drive to survive and guilt about survival in the confines of a concentration camp hut.

Were the bunk beds actually three-high and wooden or two-high and metal? The two men, survivors and camp comrades in Sachsenhausen concentration camp who regularly come to visit the set during the filming of Stefan Ruzowitzky's new film project can get into a hefty argument about a detail. But not only because of that. When the two almost 90 year-old men met each other during the course of the filming, it very quickly became a matter of more essential questions. Was Krüger, the SS officer supervising the two concentration camp huts remodelled into a counterfeiters' workshop, actually a murderer or, in view of the low death toll over the years there, a life saver? Their views on this could not be more different. "And," according to director, Stefan Ruzowitzky, "both are right. In fact everyone is always right. The cowards as well as the brave." The film-maker has positioned the conflict in his new film The Counterfeiters in the grey area between victims and perpetrators, between the sheer will to survive and the call of conscience. With his memoirs Die Werkstatt des Teufels (The Devil's Workshop) contemporary witness, Adolf Burger, provided one of the sources in which he documents Operation Bernhard from his point of view – a counterfeit money operation launched by the Nazis in which between 1942 and 1945 an estimated 100 million fake pound notes rolled from the printing presses in Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Burger was taken to Auschwitz because of his political activities. His abilities as a printer saved him in the Sachsenhausen counterfeit workshop where, as a prisoner he is misused for the Nazis' interests and plagued with questions of conscience as a privileged concentration camp inmate, he begins to sabotage the system. In The Counterfeiters he is the foil for the Jewish protagonist Sorowitsch, a character based on Salomon Smolianoff, a dubious historical figure in the Berlin demimonde of the thirties. The highly talented graphic artist, born in the south of Russia at the end of the 19th century, recognised the pragmatic benefits of his talents very early. Almost perfectly forged documents and banknotes opened up for him a life in the lap of luxury. Nevertheless, after having been caught several times he was not unknown to the police when he
firstly landed in Mauthausen concentration camp as a professional criminal before also putting his skills at the disposal of the murderous regime as the price of survival.
The subject matter obviously sought out its director itself. Within a few weeks the Vienna Aichholzer Film as well as the Hamburg magnolia film companies approached Stefan Ruzowitzky with their ideas about Operation Bernhard and Adolf Burger's memoirs. "What appealed to me about this as a producer," says Josef Aichholzer, "is on the one hand a deep and enthralling character who isn't a screenplay fantasy and on the other, the background to the largest scale forgery operation in history. We didn't want to make a concentration camp film on any account but rather to tell a story in a concentration camp where it is about how you live in there, not about how wretched it is to be a victim." A convergence of coincidences, not only for the director but also for the production companies, added up to this cooperation set-up from the beginning. The budget for the 4.2 million euro project is drawn equally from Austrian and German grant funds. "The advantage of this," explains Josef Aichholzer, "is that because of the joint development of the project everything is all of a piece. It's a real fifty-fifty solution. In some areas it makes the realisation more involved because it's thought about twice, but the whole decision-making process is determined by the principle that two heads are better than one. That's actually ideal."

The shooting of the film, more than tightly calculated with 31 days, went like clockwork. The fact that one thing interlocked with another on the set without loss of time can certainly be credited to the well-rehearsed duo of Stefan Ruzowitzky and Anton Maria Aigner, who as assistant director has provided for smooth operations in all Ruzowitzky's cinema works since Tempo (1996). Vienna and the Côte d'Azur were the first two stages of shooting, where firstly the framework of the story was shot. The elegant ambience of Monte Carlo was created in Hotel Schwarzenberg in Vienna, while the flair of the promenades and streets by the classy beaches in the south was captured at the original locations. For Sorowitsch it is the scene of a fateful meeting and a possible turning point in his life.
The Jewish master counterfeiter, who before the war was a small king of crooks, a con man and opportunist, fascinated Ruzowitzky from the beginning more than the fate of the classical resistance fighter, Burger, which has already often been portrayed on the screen. "From the films up to now we know the educated, bourgeois reporter. In my first screenplay version I also portrayed the workers in the counterfeit workshop as figures modelled on Nathan the Wise. That's a well-meant, positive cliché that's very easy to attach."
With the crook, Sorowitsch, who in Mauthausen gains his tormentors' goodwill with flattering portraits and in the counterfeit workshop almost suppresses the daily horror of the concentration camp with his life's dream of perfectly forging the dollar, Ruzowitzky breaks with familiar narrative pictures. Victim-perpetrator conflicts dissolve in a complex structure where a multi-layered balance of horror prevails in an isolated hut under the premise of survival from today until tomorrow. The pure drive to survive is in conflict with the feeling of guilt to be living better or to be alive at all. However, above it all hovers the certainty that in the end there can be no escape for anyone.
"Ambivalent, calculating and noncommittal," is how Karl Markovics describes his character in The Counterfeiters. The principal actor goes on, "He's a person who precisely in the concentration camp in this exceptional situation comes to the point that he has tried to ignore for his whole life: feelings and conscience." For his most intensive cinema job so far Markovics was not only in front of the camera every day, the camera concept that Ruzowitzky worked out with his cameraman Benedict Neuenfels planned the protagonist into every picture. With Neuenfels the director did without previously tried and tested preparation with meticulous storyboards and involved himself in a mobile work with his adept hand cameraman. "What I wanted to achieve here," says the film maker, "is very much immediacy. I want the audience to experience the whole of each moment with the hero Sorowitsch. We started out from a dogma style and in reality that only works when you prepare everything very well."
So, instead of storyboards there were three weeks of rehearsal work which created a solid basis to start shooting for the actors as well as for camera and editing. While the actors met for the first time for rehearsals, Blocks 18 and 19 of the Sachsenhausen camp were created under the supervision of the set designer, Isi Wimmer, at Babelsberger Studios. A counterfeit workshop was so painstakingly based on the original that all work processes from papermaking and printing, from registration and patination could be authentically reproduced. Going on from the workshop you come into the lounge, washrooms and bedrooms - with two-high metal bunk beds. Three-high wooden beds can be found only metres away. Immediately opposite the inside of the hut at Sorowitsch's first camp, Mauthausen, is recreated.

Karin Schiefer
© 2006