Copying the past
Tom Dawson talks to Karl Markovics, star of The Counterfeiters, about the responsibility he felt about reliving the Holocaust
When the Austrian actor Karl Markovics was first sent the screenplay for the Holocaust thriller The Counterfeiters by his friend the director Stefan Ruzowitzky, he spent a week pondering whether or not to accept the central role of Salomon ‘Sally’ Sorowitsch. The latter was a Russian Jewish artist and master forger, held in Sachsenhausen concentration camp, who participated in the Nazis’ ‘Operation Bernhard’ money-manufacturing scheme, which attempted to flood the Allied economies with fake currency. Like last year’s Hungarian drama Fateless, The Counterfeiters allows audiences a fresh perspective on a familiar subject. Here the Jewish counterfeiters are fed and clothed by their captors, sleep in beds with sheets, and have access to medical treatment, while, through the walls of their barracks they hear the screams of prisoners being murdered. Anyone found sabotaging the forgery process risks instant execution.
‘The script was one of the best scripts I’d read in my life,’ explains Markovics, speaking in fluent English on the phone from Vienna. ‘I really wanted to do it, but it’s not just fiction. There’s a weight of responsibility to the sons and daughters and grandchildren of the Holocaust.’ Consequently Markovics deliberately avoided researching and preparing for the part of Sorowitsch. ‘I tried to forget as much as possible about this time. This guy didn’t care about politics or history. Everything changes in his small world, and he just has to get through every day.’
Although the film is based on a book, The Devil’s Workshop, by another survivor from Sachsenhausen, Adolf Burger, it’s shot on handheld cameras from the perspective of the gaunt, stone-faced Sorowitsch. ‘He’s not a conventional hero whom you like from the first second you see him,’ reckons Markovics. ‘You can never be sure if you like him or not. I think because you see the story from his point-of-view, you ask questions about your own responses and wonder whether you would have behaved differently in that situation.’
The actor recalls his shock at seeing the studio set of The Counterfeiters for the first time, where he came face to face with extras milling around in SS uniforms. ‘It wasn’t that I thought that it was an actual concentration camp but that it took me right back to what I felt when I first read the script. Can we take this weight of history? Or, more precisely, can we free ourselves from this weight of history and leave ourselves outside of it? I noticed that two or three weeks after shooting, I felt the weight of the role with me.’
One of the visitors to the filming turned out to be the now 90-year-old Burger, yet at the time Markovics kept a polite distance from a man who’d experienced ‘Operation Bernhard’ at first hand. ‘I was afraid he would tell me about the character I was playing when it would have been impossible for me to adapt my performance,’ the actor explains.
Since the shoot, however, the two men have become good friends. ‘He says that even after the SS took him away from Mathausen concentration camp where he had spent five years, he had a little belly. He didn’t care about ideology or Nazis being criminals, as long as there was a chance for him to live for a day longer.’
The Counterfeiters is on general release from Fri 12