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FAKE MONEY IN A TRUE DRAMA

 

picture - The CounterfeitersFilm Review

by John Topping

published February 22, 2008

 

The Counterfeiters

rated R

now showing in select theaters

 

Although not exactly cranked out at a dizzying pace, Nazi concentration camps films are produced frequently enough that, given the willingness an audience must have to sit through yet another one and risk profound depression, you might say they are nonetheless an oversaturated genre.  When we see one, the imagery immediately hurls us back into the collective memory of every other such film we’ve seen:  The Hiding Place, Schindler’s List, Fateless – and even, unfortunately, the preposterous Life is Beautiful (where we learn that a carefree attitude makes being a victim fun!) – to name but a few.  Although they will keep being made ad infinitum – and should – we are now in an age wherein the horror of the not-too-distant past is a given, Holocaust Deniers notwithstanding.  To make a film that simply states the terrible reality of inhumanity is redundant.  It must now be approached from fresh angles, it must be the backdrop to a story that goes beyond the subject matter in and of itself and, at the same time, the film must maintain the horror of the backdrop it’s using. 

 

The Austrian film The Counterfeiters, one of the nominees for this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film, based on a true story, delves into the moral dilemma faced by its main character Salomon (Sally) Sorowitsch (played by Karl Markovics).  He lives a swinging Berlin lifestyle as a master counterfeiter until he is caught, arrested, and promptly thrown into the Mauthausen concentration camp.  His drawing skills charm the SS officers, enabling him to etch out a reasonably comfortable life there – that is, he never wants for food – until he is unexpectedly transferred to Sachsenhausen.  Expecting the worst, he is surprised to discover that he has been enlisted to be the crown jewel of an elite corps of prisoners who all have specialized technical skills.

 

The Nazis are devising a plan (which was called Operation Bernhard) to destroy the British and American economies by flooding the countries with counterfeit money.  The task of creating the money is assigned to this unit of prisoners.  They are set up with luxuries beyond their dreams – for people whose sole objective is to survive, that is:  comfy bunk beds with clean white sheets; plenty of food to eat; optimal working conditions; and even – as a reward for their first big success – a brand-spanking-new ping pong table.

 

But once they concentrate on making a flawless reproduction of the American dollar, another prisoner, Adolf Burger (August Diehl), holds the key to their success.  There’s only one problem – Burger has no intention of helping the Nazis.  A printer in civilian life, when he and his wife printed anti-Nazi flyers, they were “printing the truth.”  Now he’s being asked to print a lie, and he’s having no part of it.  He purposely botches every production run of the bills – and it only needs to be the slightest bit imperfect to render the money completely useless.  Soon a ticking clock is introduced:  they’re given four weeks to produce a successful counterfeit product; if they fail, they will all be killed.

 

Complicity in this crime is a key exploration of the film.  One prisoner becomes offended when Sally joins the team because he doesn’t want to work with someone who willfully committed crimes on the outside.  And there is the complicity that Sally and each of the prisoners must consider:  does the simple will to live make their lives more important than stopping the havoc that will be wreaked by their contribution to the Nazi cause, even if their complicity is unwilling?  And, as Burger frames the issue, is it indeed unwilling?  But it goes even further than that.  Director Stefan Ruzowitzky forces us, the audience, to consider our own complicity.  When we root for their “success” in producing a perfect counterfeit product, are we rooting for the success of the prisoners or of the Nazis?  Do we want Burger to “come to his senses” and give in so that their lives will be saved?  And if they sacrificed themselves, would the sacrifice actually make a difference?

 

There are many powerful moments in The Counterfeiters.  The very essence of luxury is brought into question – their luxurious beds and environment are equivalent to the grandiosity of living in an army barracks.  Then there is a scene where they are confronted by the other prisoners in the camp from whom they’ve all been secluded.  Starved and skeletal, these victims find the counterfeiting unit too robust and healthy to believe that they are actually fellow prisoners.  And every so often, the counterfeiters get brutal reminders of their situation:  although they are cherished as technicians upon whom the Nazis depend to carry out their plan, as Jews they are still thought of as less than human, and the Nazis don’t hesitate to treat them as such after hours, as it were.

 

Believe it or not, there are still more Holocaust movies that need to be made.  Although the play Bent is a satisfying piece of theater from a gay perspective, for example, its commitment to film is left wanting [full disclosure: so I’ve heard; I haven't actually seen the film version].  And there have been no films whatsoever (that I’m aware of) that show the experience from the viewpoint of gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other non-Jewish victims.  In the meantime, The Counterfeiters, based on a true story, is a worthy and – dare I say it? – refreshing addition to the catalogue. 

 

johntopping @ stageandcinema.com

 

 

 
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