Karl Markovics performances are so extraordinary the first impulse is to make comparisons and to say that he has something of Brando, or Olivier, even James Dean, or in the modern era, something of Mads Mikkelsen and Matthias Schoenaerts, but since these comparisons are all insufficient, they reveal something else. Karl Markovics has something that is entirely his own. The quality he owns is a sense of dignity, perfectly imbued with a knowledge of moral outrages, and a way of suggesting, with a hint of exquisite mystery, something that is the best in human beings.
To see his quality, it’s good to start with a German film, The Counterfeiters (Die Fälscher) and Markovics invocation of Solomon 'Sally' Sorowitsch, a Counterfeiter of almost other worldly ability.
The Counterfeiters is an account of a German effort, run from a concentration camp, to produce enough forged money for the Nazi’s to pay for part of the war. The opening of this film gives a hint of what Markovics can do. This episode takes place after the war, and we only know that Sally Solomon, with a face of exquisite angst and yet strength, too, arrives at a hotel in a resort where there is a European casino. Sally’s brooding intensity is enhanced by a detail when he checks into a hotel. The clerk asks for a deposit, and Sally opens a brief case, which is filled with neat bundles of money, and with an ominous shrug he pushes one of them across the counter.
It’s necessary, I think, to consider Markovic’s face and how he uses his command of expressions. His forehead is high, his cheeks hollow, his eyes unflinching. Above everything else, one glance at his face suggests a knowledge of moral outrages so large, so complete, that it seems to leave him close to exhaustion. The tension seems to come from two items, this moral exhaustion and the almost superhuman vitality to stand up to the knowledge of what this face suggests.
For instance, Markovics’ 'Sally' Sorowitsch comes into the casino, watches a card game, joins, and begins to win a lot of money, and when he does this, it is as though some hard won special almost mysterious knowledge goes into his winning. When he is doing this he is watched by a beautiful woman, and one glance from him shows that he is interested. Sally and the woman go to his hotel room, and the woman, an exquisitely beautiful actress (Dolores Chaplin), notices the tattoo of numbers on his arm. She is appalled that he has gone through a camp. They spend the night together, and in the morning, we have a scene that shows Markovics at his best.
The woman begins to dress, and she finds that Sally has left some money on the jacket she is about to put on. She turns to him and says, “I’m not, you know…” We then get a shot of Sally in bed. The first thing is that Markovics is able to produce a sense of being thoroughly sated, and that sexually, he is thoroughly relaxed. In fact, I have never seen an actor who appears so completely satisfied. He looks almost liquid in the way he sinks into the bed clothes. Then, in reaction to this comment, we have Markovics’ glance, which is filled with that moral knowledge so large as to be able to understand just about every outrage and human difficulty imaginable, and he does this by restraint, by suggesting that whatever is going on here, whatever this woman feels about taking money like a prostitute is of no consequence. He makes a slight shrug, as though this means nothing. He understands, and this moment really is nothing, absolutely nothing to worry about.
Also, this is a scene in which Markovics uses one of his gestures, which is employed when he needs to increase tension. He does this by slowing things down, and by this I mean his glance has two beats. The first is to see what is going on, and the second is a reaction. All of this is very subtle but powerful. Here, in this scene with a woman who is upset by the prospect of taking money for sleeping with someone and denying that she is a prostitute at the same time, Markovics’ glance first sees what is going on. Then a beat. And the next beat is an understanding dismissal of such concerns as being inconsequential in the face of what he knows. Or where he has been. The essence of Markovics work is a variety of tensile, almost shocking dignity in the face of moral knowledge that has a scale we can barely imagine.
Of course, that is part of the progression of The Counterfeiters. We begin to see just what the scale of knowledge really is, or why Sally is so powerful in that combination of dignity and knowledge, or just where such wisdom, since this is what he seems to have, comes from. To be sure, it is a wisdom that comes from the limits of what human beings can do and know.
Markovics is able to do his work because the film gives him a sort of platform, or an ability as a counterfeiter that we look at with something like awe. After the scene in the hotel with the woman who has mixed feelings about taking the money, we have scenes before the war, in Berlin, where Markovics is obviously living in a twilight light world of a Berlin Techno-gangster, that is, someone who doesn’t open safes, but makes forgeries of one kind or another. He meets a man and a woman who want an Argentinian passport so the woman can get out of Germany. The three of them go to Markovics’ apartment, where a negotiation takes place as to how Markovics is going to be paid. The performance here, on Markovics part, is knowing and tough. When it is clear that he is not going to do this for free, the woman says to her husband or companion, “Why don’t you leave? Sally and I will settle this.” Then, to enhance his skill, we see him at work, making a stamp that is identical to the one on a genuine Argentinian passport, and the way in which he uses the stamp on the passport picture of the woman.
These scenes are done with an attention to detail that is utterly convincing, and we see the molds used for making stamps, the ink, the use of tracing paper, all perfectly and uncannily believable. We come away from this knowing, that while Sally has this inner and tensile strength, he really knows something about producing exquisite documents with a skill, I have to admit, that is admirable.
So, the dramatic collision is set up. The essence of it is Sally’s dignity and knowledge and his ability to act as it collides with endlessly complicated moral choices. In fact, one of the uncanny aspects of Markovics performance is the way he uses, or the director here uses, the unspoken. Yes, a lot is said, but yes, a lot is left for us to feel but not really be able to explain what these emotions are, aside from at once admirable and upsetting.
The film advances. Sally is arrested in the late thirties in Berlin and sent to a concentration camp and he survives by making pictures, paintings, murals on walls of camps for the guards and for Nazi bureaucrats. He does this for years, and is then recruited to work on the forgery of money, first pounds and then dollars, for the Nazi war effort. Of course, the cop who arrested him in Berlin for forgery is now a Nazi officer who is in charge of the execution of the plan to make money for the Germans.
The skill we have seen in the early part of the film comes into play here, where Sally is working to make the pound. His gestures, when he holds a sample pound up to the light, when he rubs the paper together to see what it really feels like, when he tastes it, his expression is one of exquisite concentration. And part of the unspoken is right here. In Markovics performance in looking at money, he suggests a natural obsession in doing things that are difficult, and so while he is doing this, we feel that, yes, he is doing something that is less than morally perfect, it still comes from some deep fascination, from some profound skill that Markovics is able to portray as beautiful. The unstated is that collision is coming between who Markovics is as a skillful forger and just what he is doing to make money for the Nazis.
This collision is explored in two ways. One is the obvious fact that while Markovics and the other printers and engravers are at work, we get glimpses of the concentration camp. The forgers get special treatment, good beds, food, and privileges, while in other parts of the camp, the prisoners receive the usual treatment. This circumstance is portrayed and not made a big deal, and so this leaves room for the viewer to enter into this and think, “My god, just beyond the walls of the forgers, people are dying.”
The rest of the collision is between Sally and a printer played by August Diehl. Diehl is a actor of great authenticity, and his role here is to suggest that they sabotage the effort to make a false dollar after Sally has produced a pound so perfect that even the bank of England agrees that it is real. Diehl’s character, Berger, of course, is interfering with a stage of the printing of the dollar, and this produces enormous risks for everyone, since the Germans could take them all out and shoot them for not doing what is needed.
In a critical scene in this conflict, Berger comes to Sally when they are in the sun outside a camp building. When Berger approaches to talk, another inmate says to Berger, “You’re in the way of the sun…” Sally gets up, and with a kind of exhaustion and vitality, a variety of walking tension, he takes Berger aside. Sally listens to Berger and then with that knowledge, tension, and certainty, he isn’t going to stop making the dollars. And, he dismisses Berger with this. The other inmate was right, says Sally, Berger “is getting in the way of the sunlight.”
The essence of Markovics’ performance is a keen codification of knowing that the way to defeat the Nazis, in these circumstances, is to survive. And it is that informed survival that makes Sally so compelling.
The war ends and we go back to scenes in the casino. Sally is gambling and he is watched by Dolores Chaplin. Now, though, with that vibrant presence, Sally begins to lose, to shove the chips he has won onto a roulette table at random, until, of course, he has nothing left. Dolores Chaplin meets Sally on the beach where he has the complimentary bottle of champagne from the casino. They drink and have an impossible to describe but nevertheless dramatic understanding and something like romantic fascination. Then we have the end, which is that perfect portrayal of the aspects of Sally. He says about the money he has lost, with a shrug of knowledge in the face of enormous emotions, and with a hint of unstoppable vitality, “We can always make some more.”