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  Let live or sacrifice?
The Counterfeiters [Die Fälscher], directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky

Ion Martea
posted 18 March 2008

Winning the Oscar for the Best Foreign Film, Stefan Ruzowitzky said: ‘There have been some great Austrian filmmakers working here [in Hollywood]. Thinking of Billy Wilder, Fred Zinnemann, Otto Preminger, most of them had to leave my country because of the Nazis, so it sort of makes sense that the first Austrian movie to win an Oscar is about the Nazis' crimes’. The Counterfeiters is arguably one of the country’s best commercial successes (prior to the Academy Awards) outside the cinema of Michael Haneke, so its victory is also testament to an effective marketing campaign. The key was not to sell it as another Holocaust film, but rather as a thrilling story about a counterfeiter.

Inspired by Adolf Burger’s first hand account ‘The Devil’s Workshop’, The Counterfeiters tells the story of Salomon ‘Sally’ Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics), a professional Berlin criminal operating before the outbreak of World War Two. His arrest was imminent for criminal activity, and his Jewish background only decided the location of his imprisonment (a concentration camp, rather than a prison). From the start we know that Sorowitsch is to survive through the Holocaust, as he is to become a regular visitor of Monte Carlo casinos. Hence, it is not a surprise that the film does not evoke a real sense of tragedy. What Ruzowitzky has in mind is more an analysis of human nature, particularly through juxtaposing morality to the need to live, and thus tracing the particularities of the conflict that arises when an individual is asked to give up one for the other.

Sally Sorowitsch is based on the real counterfeiter Salomon Smolianoff, who presided over a team of counterfeiters in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, as part of Operation Bernhard. The Jewish prisoners were made to produce fake documents for Nazi spies, but primarily acted as Germany’s ‘financiers’ during the end of the war. In the then state-of-the-art printing room, more than 130 million pounds sterling was printed, in notes that even the Bank of England could not identify as fake. For this excellent job, the prisoners were allowed to sleep on clean beds, covered in soft white linen; they were given much better food rations, and allowed a personal bathroom with running water, as well as a recreational room. As Adolf Burger’s remembers in an interview for Metrodome’s DVD release, ‘They promised us villas… women’, but Bernhard Krüger (fictionalised as Sturmbannführer Friedrich Herzog, and played by Devid Striesow) could not give them ‘freedom’.

The Counterfeiters is close in spirit to Lina Wertmüller’s satirical Pasqualino Settebellezze [Seven Beauties] (1975). The life of prisoners in the camp is one most of the Holocaust victims would have envied, and the rest would have criticised its ‘excess’. Yet, Ruzowitzky manages to draw attention to the real horror these men have to face. Adolf Burger (August Diehl) is a Communist activist who is continuously trying to sabotage the printing of the US dollar, as a personal fight against the regime. This leaves the rest of the inmates’ lives stamped by the certainty of death. For Burger, a man’s life (including his own), is meant little when faced with the tragedy a nation is forced under.

Sorowitsch, by contrast has two aims: the first to survive no matter what, the other is to achieve his life-long dream of forging the dollar, especially when he has an entire factory working for this. This individualist trait is one that demonises and at the same time empowers him. ‘Never squeal at your mates’, he shouts at one of the workers who discovers Burger’s plan. Sally knows that he is jeopardised, yet he chooses to save an individual. He would rather infect the whole barrack with TB, than let a young graphic artist be shot by Kapos.

In this framework, Ruzowitzky plays with two distinct outlooks for what one may perceive as resistance: ‘Let live’ (Sorowitsch) vs. ‘Sacrifice’ (Burger). Both individuals are heroes in their own way, despite the fact that one is justified by social Darwinism and the other by political idealism. The director is almost trying to say that in the extreme horror created by the Nazi regime, the survival of a nation depended equally on physique and on reason. It is in here that we have echoes of Jean Renoir’s La grande illusion [The Grand Illusion] (1937), seeing characters thrilled by the breath of life and tortured by their inability to save the others and end the horror.

When Pier Paolo Pasolini made Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma [Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom] (1975), he was equally abhorred by the travesty that was Nazi ideology as by the petty shit-eating individuals who were following it. The fact that The Counterfeiters looks at relatively ‘privileged’ victims of the war means it highlights crimes committed not so much by a state, but by Kapos and low-ranking officials.

Given the presence of contemporary Iraq and Afghanistan atrocities in films such Redacted (Brian De Palma, 2007) and Ghosts of Abu Ghraib (Rory Kennedy, 2007), The Counterfeiters comes with a historical moral that modern politicians must remember, even if they are not currently demonised as the Nazi regime was in its time. Essentially, wars are made by individuals and are ended by other smarter individuals. However, each crime committed by any single individual or member of the army, will haunt the history of a nation, and will not be forgotten, irrespective of how ‘privileged’ its victims are considered to be.

 

     
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