Monday, March 3, 2008

The Counterfeiters

By Elise Nakhnikian

For decades, your standard Nazi movie featured SS officers so evil they might have goose-stepped out of the pages of EC Comics. We probably needed that catharsis, given the horror and extent of the Holocaust, but movies like that avoid hard questions about human nature, flattering viewers by assuring us that we’d all have been good guys if we’d had the bad luck to be caught in that time and place.

We seem to be ready now to face more complicated truths about what led to the Holocaust and what people did to survive it. A recent New York Times article said a popular graphic novel is being used in German classrooms to teach kids about WWII. The novel looks at choices made by regular citizens that either helped or hindered the Nazi agenda, “instances where ordinary individuals — farmers, shopkeepers, soldiers, prison guards, even camp inmates — faced dilemmas, acted selfishly or ambiguously: showed themselves to be human.”

Movies seem to be going down the same path. 2005’s Downfall, a German production based on a German book, looked at the fanatic loyalty Hitler inspired in so many of his countrymen. Last year’s Black Book, by Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven, was a dry-eyed tale of compromises made by a Jewish beauty who survives the war by passing for Christian in occupied Holland. And The Counterfeiters, another German production based on a nonfiction book and this year’s Oscar winner for best foreign film, is about what writer-director Stefan Ruzowitzky calls “one of the most interesting aspects of the concentration camp phenomenon: the moral plight of the prisoners.”

A darker cousin to The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Counterfeiters tells the true story of a group of Jews brought from other camps to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where they carried out the largest counterfeiting operation ever conducted, mass-producing first the British pound, then the American dollar. (The Nazis planned to flood both economies with excess bills.)

The movie starts with a shot of the ocean on a gray day when the sea merges almost seamlessly with the sky, the horizon barely perceptible. It’s a nice visual metaphor for the story’s moral landscape, where the only choices offered are usually between a terrible option and an even worse one, and where people rarely have the luxury of being sure that they are doing the right thing.

Unless they’re Adolf Burger. Burger wrote The Devil's Workshop, the book the film is based on, and he plays a prominent role in the movie, functioning as half the group’s conscience. Burger (August Diehl) and his wife were arrested and sent to the camps for printing anti-Nazi flyers and false identification papers for Jews eager to escape. To him, “the reason we’re printers is to print the truth,” and that truth is literally worth dying for (his wife perished in Auschwitz). So he persistently sabotages the Nazis’ plans, ruining plates that are meticulously created by master printer Salomon Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics).

It may be Burger’s book, but it’s Sorowitsch’s movie. Based on real-life counterfeiting genius Salomon Smolianoff, the gimlet-eyed hard guy seems at first like an amoral opportunist. But the camera that sticks to him like a faithful dog slowly reveals his soft side. It also shows him to be a natural leader, inspiring and protecting his men.

Sorowitsch was a criminal before the war, printing fake money and fake IDs just to make a buck. The flip side of the group’s conscience, he still lives by a criminal’s code of honor, doing what it takes to protect himself and his men. That means he’s torn between going along with the Nazis and covering for Burger’s sabotage. After all, as he warns one of the other men: “One never squeals on one’s mates.”

Sorowitsch and his men are nurtured, even pampered when they do what they’re told, assigned to a “golden cage” with mattresses, pillows, sufficient food, warm showers, and even luxuries like records and a ping-pong table. Better yet, the guards are under order to leave them alone.

But those privileges can always be revoked, and the penalty for being caught defying orders is death. The constant fear of discovery keeps the hum of danger in the air, making the men lash out at each other at times.

A few bits, like the subplot about Sorowitsch’s surrogate son and a montage of obtuse remarks lobbed at Sorowitsch by the camp commander’s clueless wife, strain too hard to create an effect, but nearly every scene lands with the clarity and emotional impact of a seminal memory. Naturalistic lighting and a camera that acts as an unobtrusive witness help keep you firmly grounded in Sorowitsch’s world, while chilling glimpses and sound bites keep him – and us – from ever forgetting what’s going on in the camp outside.

The Counterfeiters makes you wonder how it might feel to be trapped in a place like that – and whether you’d have enough courage and faith to buck the system.

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