Arrested in 1936 during the Nazi ascendancy, Solly is sent to a labor camp. He mangles his precious hands for months -- breaking rocks feverishly as the infirm around him are summarily shot -- until he can make his skill as an artist known. He lives well on Nazi table scraps, painting portraits and propaganda as a kind of artist-in-incarceration. He's slapped around on occasion, and despite his immense skill, still treated like a dog, but he survives.
Some five years later, he's abruptly shipped to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, sharing a chicken-wire cage with a young Russian artist named Kolya, who becomes something of a son to him. Why the Nazis are shipping two Jews west to the area around Berlin while most are being shipped by the thousands to the Third Reich's eastern frontier and near certain extermination is a puzzle to Solly. Then, once in Sachsenhausen, he's again met by Herzog, now a Sturmbannf & uuml;hrer (the equivalent of a major) in the SS. Herzog is in charge of Operation Bernhard, the largest counterfeiting operation ever undertaken. Solly is asked to head "quality control." The mission is to first replicate British pounds with enough exactitude to fool the Bank of England and in enough quantity to destroy the English economy. Then, the task is to do the same with the dollar. In exchange, they're kept in a separate compound within Sachsenhausen. They're well-fed, given weekends off and live, at first, under no threat of death.
The pounds are such a success and the Reich is running out of money so quickly that Herzog's directive, however, changes halfway through. The Germans need foreign currency because theirs is so devalued. Solly and the others find themselves funding the Nazi war effort.
That's one level of complicity too far for Adolf Burger, also a member of Operation Bernhard, who would eventually write the memoir that The Counterfeiters is based on. Solly, Burger argues, isn't just turning a blind eye to wholesale murder, he's actively financing it. So Burger, who was sent with his entire family to the camps for printing anti-Nazi leaflets, begins actively sabotaging the collotype process. In other films, perhaps, Burger would be our hero.
In The Counterfeiters, though, heroism is harder on those around the hero than on the hero himself. With progress on the dollar stalled for months, Herzog gets enough pressure from above that he begins threatening lives. Burger's refusal to comply amounts to a death sentence not only for himself but for four others. In choosing to resist, he isn't simply choosing for himself -- he's choosing for the entire unit.
And thus in a rare, refreshing way, even the resistance fighter's motivations are called up for review. Even for the noble-minded, there is precious little moral high ground in the walls-within-the-walls of Operation Bernhard. As in less extraordinary circumstnces, the ground is relatively even. All any of us can do is stake a claim to a patch of it, hoping that when destruction comes, our patch of earth will be left unscorched. (Rated R)