A scene from The Counterfeiters Photos by Jat Jurgen Olczyk © Beta Film GmbH, courtesy Sony Pictures Classics. All Rights Reserved
February 21, 2008
The Counterfeiters is a mostly true depiction of the Nazi effort to undermine the economies of Britain and the United States by flooding them with forged currency, based on the published memoirs of Adolf Burger, a Holocaust survivor.
The Jewish prisoners at the special barracks at Sachsenhausen contend with the moral dilemma of having to aid the Nazi regime’s scheme in order to survive. Burger, a printer by trade, was a young Communist from Czechoslovakia who sabotaged their work by spoiling the ink, delaying the project for several months. In the movie, he tries to get the other Jews to resist the Nazis, despite the obvious risks.
Burger’s idealism is counterpoised against the blunt practicality of Salomon Sorowitsch, a career criminal and master counterfeiter who provides technical oversight for the operation. But neither character is two-dimensional. Burger is a not just a political radical, he’s also motivated by the murder of his wife at Auschwitz. And it’s not that “Solly” (Sorowitsch) is simply an amoral criminal; he tries valiantly to get medicine for a young barracks mate with tuberculosis and shows kindness to other workers as well. With the comforts and necessities afforded them by their Nazi captors — in the interest of getting the Jews to produce their valuable forgeries — the captives achieve a level of solidarity that is almost impossible for regular concentration camp victims.
Veteran filmmaker Stefan Ruzowitzky and his star, Karl Markovics as Sorowitsch, tried not to sentimentalize their portrayal. Sorowitsch does not become a saint. It is believed that the Salomon Smolianoff — the real-life model for Sorowitsch — continued in his criminal ways; he was sought by police authorities internationally as a counterfeiter. As noted in the closing credits, he is thought to have put his talents to good use by forging passports for refugees to post-war Palestine, and to have spent his final years in the 1960s in Argentina, utilizing his ability as a painter, to live from the “rediscovery” of paintings by Old Masters.
August Diehl as Adolf Burger
The real Adolf Burger, now in his 90s, was a consultant on the film. Although Ruzowitzky tried not to be “politically correct,” Burger’s enduring idealism influenced the script. He persuaded Ruzowitzky to change an early version of the film in which Sorowitsch kills Herzog, the Nazi commander of the forgery unit. Burger claimed that Sorowitsch would never do such a thing: “We were not like them.” Having seen the film, however, I see it as perfectly in Sorowitsch’s character to do the deed. Bernhard Kruger, the character on which Herzog was based, was saved from execution by the testimony of a number of his ex-prisoners at a post-war trial. They generally commended him for saving most of the 140 men in his charge, although others blamed him for the deaths of six of their comrades. The film judges Herzog harshly. The favors he grants are calculated and self-serving. Despite protestations as the war ends that he’s not really a Nazi, his attitudes and behaviors are perfectly Nazi-like. Ruzowitzky points out that he hands out cigarettes to his charges but will never be seen smoking with them, because Nazis do not socialize with Jews.
Even though the prisoners’ skills enable them to work in a special compound with real beds and sheets, better food, the pleasures of a phonograph, and leisure time, their ordeal is nonetheless harrowing. It’s only at the end of the film that one realizes how relatively privileged they were: after the Nazis have fled, the group comes face to face with the skeletal, filth-encrusted inmates of the regular barracks. The prisoners from the regular camp seize their compound and almost massacre them, initially believing that those well-fed and clothed fellow victims had to be SS guards.
Two of the five nominees for this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film are grim dramas of Jews struggling to survive. For my money, Austria’s The Counterfeiters trumps Israel’s Beaufort. The concentration camp inmates, organized and (mostly) cared for by the Nazis to counterfeit British pounds and U.S. dollars, have a level of control over their fate, introducing a dimension of moral conflict, that does not seem to be true of the Israeli soldiers stuck in a vulnerable outpost during the final days of Israel’s security zone in southern Lebanon in 2000.
If you are averse to almost unrelenting cruelty and violence, The Counterfeiters is not for you. But if you can stomach it, this is a first class dramatic experience.
Ralph Seliger is editor of ISRAEL HORIZONS, the publication of Meretz USA and its blog.
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