The Stage and Cinema
2010 Independent and Foreign Film
Review Writing Contest
Third place winner Janet Garber
Film: Die Falscher (The Counterfeiters)
Country: Austria, Germany
Language: German, Russian, English, Hebrew
Director: Stefan Ruzowitzky
Berlin: One moment Master Forger, Salomon (“Sally”) Sorowitsch seems indifferent to the plight of his fellow Jews and the scorn leveled at him
by the Nazis he deals with on the black market. The next, he’s deported to concentration camps at Mannhausen and then
There he’s just a Jew among many others in striped pajamas,
starving, gaunt, shrunken into himself. Slight and doleful, with his thin crooked mouth and rodent-like movements, casting furtive sidelong
glances at a guard’s half-eaten apple, he’s on the make for the main chance - surviving by sketching flattering portraits of Nazis, patriotic
murals in exchange for extra food.
Then a choice presents itself. In the second camp, he’s
offered a relatively easy berth (food, showers, entertainment, clean beds, clothes - albeit ones taken off gassed prisoners), provided he run
a huge counterfeiting operation, churning out pounds and dollars designed to flood (and sink) the economies of the Allies. With a shrug, he
adheres to his motto that has guaranteed his survival thus far: “Adapt or die.” He goes to work supervising a dozen others in the
But he hasn’t counted on fellow inmate, Burger, young,
idealistic, a political activist who was deported for printing anti-Nazi pamphlets. Burger, conscience of the Jews, conscience of Sally? What
ensues is a tense moral combat between these two men for the bodies and souls of the Jews. Burger points out that their efforts will finance
the operations of the Nazis, the death camps, further the suffering of the other inmates whose cries and anguish can be heard through the wall
of their elite compound. He argues that they all will be killed no matter what and here is their chance to act nobly. He argues that the
sacrifice of their lives could count for something. Sally will have none of this, to him one day more of life is a victory over the Nazis (“A
day is a day”). But he hesitates.
The others in the lab want Sally to turn Burger over for
sabotage, but it turns out Sally (from his jail days?) has another motto he lives by: “You don’t squeal on a mate.” By a twist of fate, our
anti-hero Sally, the hardened criminal, must look out for the welfare of the group: Burger, a tubercular teen, the haughty bank manager, the
medical doctor. Sally slowly emerges as the man who can make the hard choices, the one cunning enough to pull things off.
Then there’s Herzog, a “criminal” that Sally can understand
viscerally. Herzog’s the dirty cop who got Sally deported; years later, as Camp Superintendent, he’s safeguarding Sally’s existence so Sally
can produce currency for the cause. We’re allowed to see the rules this Nazi plays by. He’d like us to believe even he acts in order to
survive and protect his family. He proudly announces, “I’d never hit my children,” while we guess at the daily atrocities he oversees in the
camp. Yet he convinces Sally enough so that he is spared at a crucial moment.
Days after Liberation, we see Sally looking much as he did at
the beginning of the war, but not speaking. A Russian, he refused to speak Russian in 1936, presumably because of painful events in his past.
Now in 1944 he cannot speak German either. He gambles at Monte Carlo with the counterfeit dollars he’s managed to secrete away, winning
enormously then purposely losing it all. The film closes with Sally dancing on the beach with a casino courtesan, who we understand does what
she has to in order to survive. He tells her, “We can always make more money.” and we get the feeling he will once again return to surviving
as he knows best.
The portrayals of the three men, the impossible choices, the
spare but telling details will keep you hooked on the action till the very last moment and talking about this movie for weeks. What would you
have done? What is your code of ethics? Could you sacrifice yourself for the greater good? Or do you believe, as Sally did, that it’s hard to
change the system when you’re dead?