The Counterfeiters

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Jat Jurgen Olczyk/Metrodome Distribution and Sony Pictures Classics
Stefan Ruzowitzky/Austria-Germany 2007

The Counterfeiters is about those concentration camp victims who were the most privileged within the entire Nazi system. Privileged is not the same as lucky. Approximately 150 Jews – printers, bankers and artists – were pulled into isolation in Sachsenhausen camp to forge, amongst other documents, British and American money for the Nazi war effort. It was the biggest, most successful counterfeiting operation in history.

These men, who are introduced around by their Jewish overseer with “they’ll kill us after the war,” can only listen to the horrors inflicted on the prisoners around them. They have enough food, their own hair, mattresses with sheets; in one grotesque sequence they’re even given a ping-pong table. But this never suffices to blind them to their reality.

Based on a memoir by Adolf Burger (August Diehl), a Communist printer, the film centers on Solomon Sorowitsch, known to all as Sally (Karl Markovics). He’s the best forger in 1936 Berlin and a huge prize for Herzog (Devid Striesow), the young SS officer/policeman who arrests him. Sally disappears into the Nazi prison system, which of course disappears into the concentration camps. He makes sure he gets noticed – an unusual survival tactic – and soon his artistic talents are in demand for propaganda. He’s still alive in 1944 when he comes back under Herzog’s control and is brought with Burger and three others to the “golden cage.”

The film is very well cast and Benedict Neuenfels’ cinematography also finds the delicate balance between faux-realism and fetishizing the Holocaust. But Herzog is another cliché of a good Nazi, who uses middle-management techniques to motivate the men. And Torsten Heinemann’s sound ruins the otherwise carefully established tone; with one exception, the soundtrack is relentlessly overbearing commentary on the action.

By emphasizing what we see with such banal aural cues, Stefan Ruzowitsky, who has directed two successful German-language horror films and one unsuccessful English-language war movie, makes it clear he doesn’t feel the story is strong enough by itself. The crux of the film – the men’s attempts to sabotage production of the dollar, enough to prevent Nazi success but without getting them all shot – becomes a moral question as to whether they were right, as Jews, in doing the Nazis’ work. Should they have refused it knowing this meant death, and knowing their deaths would have only brought a fresh crew of slaves into the cage?

To ask this question is to imply these men had a choice. This is a false premise. All these men could try to do was survive. To judge their survival, as this film does, is to try to blame them for Nazi crimes. Is this how we confront evil in 2007, not by documenting it faithfully or fighting it openly, but instead by blaming its victims for their victimhood?

© 2007 Sarah Manvel. All rights reserved.

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