The Counterfeiters (Austria)

the counterfeitersYEAR OF RELEASE: 2007

COUNTRY: Austria

DIRECTOR: Stefan Ruzowitzky


LENGTH OF TIME: 98 minutes

RATING:  (not rated)



. Chapter’s Key Themes: Holocaust

. World History: Fascism; Nationalism and its negative global effects

. Geography: Austria; Berlin; Concentration camps

. Economics: Operation Bernhard; Relationship of economic and historical movements

. Civics, Citizenship and Government: Religious Intolerance: Anti-Semitism;

Human rights; the Final Solution


. World Literature: Holocaust literature

. Media Studies: Cinematography Techniques: character foil, circular style and flashback, symbols, color

. Creative Writing/Critical Thinking: Personal voice: memoir and diary;

Moral dilemma; What does it take to survive; Comparative essay

. Music: Argentine tangos; Classical music


The Counterfeiters was directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky; screenplay by Stefan Ruzowitzky and Adolf Burger; produced by Josef Aichholzer, Nina Bohlmann and Babette Schröder;

cinematography by Benedict Neuenfels; edited by Britta Nahler; music by Marius Ruhland; distributed by Universum Film AG and Sony Pictures Classic. (98 minutes)

Sorowitsch, “Sali” ………………………………..… Karl Markovics

Adolf Burger……………………………………….… August Diehl

Sturmbannführer Herzog …………………………. Devid Striesow

Kolya…………………………………………………. Sebastian Urzendowsky

The Counterfeiters retells the true story of the Germans’ World War II “Operation Bernhard” of destroying the Allies on an economic battle-ground. Their aim was to destabilize the British treasury by forging English bank notes and then continue to do the same to the American one-hundred dollar bill. The leader of the group of counterfeiters in Sachsenhausen concentration camp is Sali, a complex character of many shades and stripes of grey.


.  World War I was started by the assassination of the Serbian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914. This also led to the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that was soon afterwards dismantled and its territories became independent states.

. Austria remained independent until 1938 when German troops occupied the country.

At that time, Austria was incorporated into the Third Reich and ceased to exist as an independent country.

. Hitler was born in Austria and was an Austrian citizen. During the war, many Austrians joined the German Fascist party and the Nazi army, especially the section of the Wehrmacht.

. One month before the end of World War II in April 1945, Vienna fell to the Soviet offensive and occupation. After the defeat of Germany, Austria, like Germany, was divided into 4 zones: American, British, French, and Russian.

. On May 15, 1955, Austria regained full independence and several months later Austria was declared neutral.

. In 1995 Austria became a member of the European Union.


a.  Discuss and share information about concentration camps. Who were Kapos and Sonderkommandos?

. Kapo was a term used for certain prisoners who worked inside Fascist concentration camps during World War II for the Germans in various ways. For their services, they received privileges. The Fascists usually kept them as workers for three months and then exterminated them with the other prisoners so there would be no one left to tell the truth about what had happened in a concentration camp.

. Sonderkommandos were also prisoners who worked for the Nazis for special privileges. They worked in forced labor camps, concentration camps, Pogroms, Ghettos, and extermination camps. They also directly assisted the German soldiers in the exterminating process and killing of other inmates. However, Sonderkommandos did not participate directly in the killing, which was reserved for the Fascist SS guards. The primary responsibility of Sonderkommandos was to dispose of the corpses. They accepted to do this morally and ethically compromised work, because it meant they would have a few more days or weeks of life, as well as better living conditions compared to the other prisoners. They would sleep in their own barracks, receive extra food, medicines and cigarettes.

b. What countries were occupied by Germany during WW II?

. Poland, East Prussia, Lithuania, Latvia, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Greece, Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Spain, Italy, Norway, Finland, Denmark, Netherlands, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, and Libya.

c. What countries were Allied Forces during World War II?  Who were their leaders?

What countries were Axis Powers during World War II? Who were their leaders?

Allied Forces:   United States – Franklin Roosevelt

United Kingdom – Winston Churchill

Soviet Union – Joseph Stalin

Republic of China – Chian Kai-Shek

Axis Powers:    Germany – Adolf Hitler

Italy – Benito Mussolini

Japan – Hideki Tojo

d. Define the following terms:

. Gestapo, Wehrmacht, SS Army, Third Reich, Aryan race, swastika, air raids, bomb shelters, Final solution, safe houses, neutral countries, ghetto, underground, resistance groups, forgery, Gypsies, concentration camps, and labor camps.


a. The chronology of the film, The Counterfeiters begins in 1936 Berlin, where we are introduced to the main character, Salomon Sorowitsch, known as Sali, a gambler, loan shark and master forger. Living the good life in Berlin as a Russian Jew, Sali’s business is to forge passports and currency, and to use both to pay for his life-style. But his carefree days are discontinued when he is arrested by Herzog, a Nazi police officer, who sends him to a forced labor camp in Mauthausen.

b. Sali uses his wits and talents to survive the concentration camps by working for the Nazis as a portrait painter. After a few years, he is transferred to another concentration camp, Sachsenhausen, where Herzog has become the officer in charge. Sturmbannführer Herzog heads a secret effort to destabilize the Allies’ economy by issuing counterfeit British pound notes and American dollars. Herzog remembers that Sali is the best forger and installs him in a special barrack of the concentration camp to head up a group of 142 hand-picked Jewish inmates who are artists, printers, typesetters, and bankers.

c. The prisoners are coerced to co-operate with the Nazis or succumb to the gas chamber. From 1942-1945 they work as a group to reproduce 134 million pounds of forged British bank notes.

d. The story of The Counterfeiters is based on reality and is an adaptation from Adolf Burger’s autobiography, The Devil’s Workshop. The book and film explore the conflict of conscience that the counterfeiters felt. They knew their talents would save their lives as long as they were needed and they would live better than their fellow inmates who were being exterminated in gas chambers. And yet, they knew that their producing counterfeit money prolonged the war in favor of the Germans. They were torn between sabotaging or acquiescing. The moral question is as compelling as their forgery.

e. Herzog, the German Nazi in charge of Sachsenhausen concentration camp, is based on Major Bernhard Krueger, a German Fascist textile engineer who learned how to match the paper, printing and design of the British pound note. He located the 142 forgers from several concentration camps with the assistance of Heinrich Himmler, Hitler’s associate. The aim was to pass off the forged pound notes to use as currency to pay for petrol, food, arms, and espionage for the German army.



1. How would you describe Sali’s moral conflict? What are some scenes where he conceals or expresses his conscience? How does Adolf Burger oppose Sali? Why?

2. How did the Nazis envision that forging British and American currency would serve as an economic weapon during World War II? Did it work? How?

3. How would you define “genocide”?

. Genocide is “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group by the following means:”

. Killing members of the group;

. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life, calculated to bring about its

physical destruction in whole or in part;

. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group.

4. What other countries have experienced genocide?


. Armenia – During World War I, 1 million Armenians in Turkey’s Ottoman Empire

(1915-1917) are victims of genocide. The Armenia massacre is considered the first genocide in the 20th century.  In April 1915, the Turks order the deportation of nearly 2 million Armenians to the deserts of Syria and Mesopotamia. Along the way, almost 1 million die of starvation or are killed by Turkish soldiers.

. Holocaust – During World War II, 6 million Jews are killed in Europe because the Fascists, led by Adolf Hitler, want to wipe out the Jewish race for they are considered inferior to Aryan Germans and because they, or their grandparents, have been born Jewish. The Holocaust is a systematic destruction of more than two thirds of the prewar Jewish population of Europe.

. Cambodia – Under the ruthless leader, Pol Pot, in 1975-1979, the Khmer Rouge kill 1.7 million people in “Killing Fields” which represents 25% of Cambodia’s population.

. Former Yugoslavia: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, and Croatia  (1991-95). The war in

Bosnia and Herzegovina is a bitter armed conflict due to ethnic hatred. The number of

deaths reach more than 100,000 and 1.8 million people are displaced. Most Bosniaks and Croats claim that the war is due to Serbia’s aggressions.

. Iraq – Kurds vs. Sadam’s Bath Party of Sunnis (1988) In October 1988, Sadam and

his Bath party spray Kurdish mountain villages in northern Iraq and Kurdish parts of Iran with chemical and lethal gas in order to wipe out the Kurds.

. Rwanda – Hutus vs. Tutsis: Hutus massacre more than 1 million Tutsis during a period of 100 days from April 6 to mid July 1994 because of ethnic hatred.

. Sudan – Darfur. Since 2003 the western Sudan area, Darfur, has been at war, fueled primarily by a government-supported militia recruited from local Arab tribes. They are called Janjaweed. The genocide in Darfur has claimed more than 500,000 lives and displaced over 2 1/2 million people. The Darfur region is home to racially mixed tribes of settled peasants, who identify as African and Arabs, and nomadic herders. The majority of people in both groups are Muslim. Since February 2003, the Sudanese government in Khartoum and the government-sponsored Janjaweed militia have used rape, organized starvation, displacement, threats against aid workers, and mass murder. Violence, disease and displacement continue to kill thousands of innocent Darfurians every month.




. Many of the prisoners in the concentration camps knew what was going on in Europe as the Allies fought against the Axis powers. They were also aware of what was Germany’s Program of  “the Final Solution.”

Suggested Activities:

. How did the Sachsenhausen concentration camp fit into the Fascist plan of “The Final Solution”?

. Which characters in the film give us information about the Holocaust?

. What was life for a Jew during this time?

. Research and discuss what German population knew as of 1942 that there was a “Holocaust” going on in Europe?


. All the members of the counterfeiters are aware of what is happening inside their concentration camp as well as outside. As the film progresses, these prisoners give us bits of information similar to a Greek chorus. One character tells us at the end of the film that the bombing they hear is from Berlin and the allies are destroying Berlin. Burger is aware and says, that the war is ending. Herzog prepares to leave the camp just before the Allies liberate the prisoners. He even prepares his expected post-war trial by having Sali sign a letter that Herzog had saved the group of 142 Jews. He hopes this will exonerate him as a war criminal. (In reality, after two years of being incarcerated in England and one year in France, Herzog is set free because of these testaments.)

. The Final Solution was Nazi Germany’s plan and execution of the systematic genocide of European Jews during World War II, resulting in the most deadly phase of the war –to systematically kill millions of Jews by mass extermination in selected concentration camps equipped with gas chambers. This was implemented as of 1942. Heinrich Himmler was the chief architect of the plan and the German Nazi leader, Adolf Hitler, termed it, “the final solution of the Jewish question.” (Die Endlösung der Judenfarge, in German)