Gregory G. H. Rihn (milwaukeesfs) wrote,
Gregory G. H. Rihn

The Counterfeiters

We wanted to see a movie Easter Sunday afternoon, and considered an uplifting story about faith and belief, but then decided that "Horton Hears a Who" would probably attract too many small children to an early matinee for comfort. Instead, we went to one about a Jew who dies to the world, goes through Hell and is ressurected--figuratively. This was the winner of this year's Best Foreign Language film, "The Counterfeiters." ("Die Fälscher").

"The Counterfeiters" is based on facts regarding the largest (known) counterfeiting operation in history, the World War II plot by the Nazis first, to destabilize enemy economies by flooding them with fake currency, and then to finance thier own war effort. (I say "known" since Britain and the US at least had similar programs vs the Axis, some details of which are still secret, and there are persistent rumors of the US, the Soviet Union, and China forging one another's money into the Cold War--.)

Joking aside, the protagonist of the film, Salomon "Sally" Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics) is no Christ figure. He is a career criminal, Europe's pre-eminent counterfeiter. There are hints he was not always such: he is a gifted artist who at one time had a wife and child. He never talks about them during the film except to say that they were killed, in context that imples they may have been victims of a pogrom in his native Russia. By 1938, however, he is well immersed in the criminal mindset, so much so that, even though he knows the police are on his trail, he delays getting out of town for some immediate gratification, and so is apprehended by Detective Herzog (Devid Striesow).

As a Jew, he is moved from civil detention to the concentration camp at Mathausen. When his guards see his skill in drawing, he gains favored status and extra rations by painting portraits and "heroic" murals for them, and so survives through 1944, when he is suddenly transferred to the Sachenhausen camp.

Once there, it appears he has been specifically requested by his old nemesis Herzog, who is now an SS Sturmbannführer (Major) in charge of the so-far unsucessful counterfeiting operation.

Despite being given comfortable beds, decent food, and civilian clothing ("second-hand" Herzog blandly explains, when it is noticed the clothes have come from Auschwitz--), the counterfeiting unit is a pressure cooker of tension. It is highly secret, so much so that, when there is even a chance one of the unit may have spoken to another prisoner, that prisoner is instantly killed. There is constant pressure to perform with the threat of failure or non-cooperation meaning reassignment to death squads such as the euphemistically named "shoe testing division." The prisoners themselves are divided by politics, morality and class. A telling moment occurs when one, a former bank manager, protests at being made to perform "criminal acts" and associate with criminals, and is roundly laughed to scorn by the guards, who of course see him as no different. Tension rachets up as the team approaches success and they begin to realize that reaching their goal might assist their opressors, and there is much debate as to whether to sabotage the effort, or to continue and save themselves. Plus, there are the issues of "survivor's guilt" as the Nazi extermination operation goes on around them.

Through it all, Sally maintains his equilibrium: he does not really see any difference between the Nazis' institutional brutality and the system he has been bucking all along in his criminal career. He is already accustomed to cooperating for good treatment, and assignment to the forgery unit is only a step up, and, moreover, one that allows him to pursue his "artistic" dreams. It is only when he suffers a personal betrayal at the hands of Herzog that he strikes back amid the chaos of the Reich's final collapse.

The Austrian filmmaking team of Stefan Ruzowitzky and Adolf Burger have created a remarkable piece of work: Ruzowitzky having done the script from Burger's book, Ruzowitzky directing, and Burger appearing in the film as "August Diehl," the Communist who is Sally's ethical opposite. It is a dark-side version of "Schindler's List," taking an uncompromising look at the choices people must make when offered at chance at survial under intolerable conditions.

Highly reccommended. As might be expected, there are incidents of brutal violence. In German, with English subtitles.
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