By now, you’d figure that the Holocaust and the Nazi persecution of European Jews would be all tapped out, creatively. After all, the last three decades have seen numerous media exposés and artistic interpretations. From the sublime to the subjective, Hitler’s Final Solution is one of the most well worn (and historically necessary) subjects tackled by filmmakers, and yet the potential storylines seem never ending. A perfect example is the 2008 Best Foreign Film winner Die Fälscher (translation: The Counterfeiters). Telling the true story of underworld crime figure Salomon Sorowitsch and his forced labor efforts on behalf of his SS captors, we wind up witnessing one of the most unusual and effective views of this undeniably horrific time ever offered.
When we first meet Sorowitsch, he is gambling in a Monte Carlo casino. As he places a bet, his mind wanders back to pre-War Berlin. The Nazi party is making life impossible for members of his faith, but he feels invincible—after all, he’s the best phony paper pusher in the country. Unfortunately, he is captured, and sent to a concentration camp. There, his unique talents are championed by Lagerkommandanten Herzog. In charge of Hitler’s plan to undermine the British and US economy, he wants Sorowitsch to counterfeit the pound sterling. If he’s successful, America’s dollar is next. Among his group of well cared for inmates is a Communist print master named Adolph Burger. He wants nothing to do with the scheme and hopes to rise up against his captures. But Sorowitsch is only out for himself, no matter how selfish that sounds.
There are times when you want The Counterfeiters to be great, to stand up and recognize the inherently intriguing tale it has to tell and do so magnificently. You want it to stop meandering about, to cease giving unnecessary time to Burger and his tired whining and posturing, and instead really explore the dynamic of turning rags and inks into top quality currency. This is a film that hints at the process, but never digs deeper. But it’s impossible to deny the quantitative curiosity factor present, or the unusual way writer/director Stefan Ruzowitzky tells the tale. Applying a Dogma ‘95 like technique, scenes are lit naturally, scenes playing out amongst minimal sets. All the Holocaust horrors remain indirect, experienced through sound cues, suggestion, and the occasional half-glimpsed moment of gore. This is not just Sorowitsch’s story, yet who he is remains the center of the situation at hand.
It’s a weird dilemma for the criminal. In one way, he is helping his persecutor undermine his potential liberator. He understands the rules of survival and how to bend them just enough to get what he wants. He’s surrounded by accomplices and antagonists, men willing to play along with the Nazi plan and those already defeated by their torturous treatment. In essence, Ruzowitzky needs the battle of wills between Sorowitsch and Burger, letting each one have a pro/con position before turning the evidence against them. Logic argues for our hero’s stance. He does what he’s told in hopes it will save his life. His chief antagonist is more interested in the soul. He can’t see aiding and abetting a bunch of demons, no matter the protection it provides.
In the middle are the rest of the counterfeiting crew, and one of the film’s few weaknesses is its treatment of these people. They come across as clichés, the supplicant and the surly, each one trying their best to find a way to deal with the death around them. Rozowitzky wisely keeps them off to the side, decided to focus on Sorowitsch, Burger, and Herzog instead. The camp commandant is an interesting character, unlike any we’ve seen in recent Holocaust recreations. He’s compassionate without being kind, ruthless without taking out his agenda on the prisoners. He demands results and doesn’t mind using intimidation and anger as a way of getting them. But there is also a surreal side to his personality, something that intimates a kind of caring for those he’s exploiting.
A good way of seeing this dichotomy arrives when Sorowitsch is invited to the Commandant’s house for an important meeting. In a short, savvy montage, the director offers the officer’s shrewish wife, a perfect Aryan fright with a smiling face that barely covers her genocidal disgust. Though it flashes by in a few seconds, it says a great deal about why Herzog is not really a villain. He’s bad—a last act event will definitely underline this—but he’s also the picture perfect illustration of the mind “merely taking orders”. Just to be safe, Rozowitzky gives us a couple of jackbooted Sturmbannführers so as not to lose sight of the real issues involved—that is, the extermination of an entire people.
Indeed, what’s clear about The Counterfeiters is that it is intended to be a Holocaust film where the archetypal facets associated with the era—the deplorable conditions, the inhuman suffering, the random violence—are reduced to a filmic footnote. In its place is another kind of abomination, one that rests solely on morality and how people will subvert their will and principles for the sake of saving their skin. It’s not just that Sorowitsch and his crew are willing to help the Nazi’s undermine the Allies—it’s that they actually succeed. In one of the few cases where a German plan managed to achieve its evil ends, England was flooded with millions in bogus currency.
Still, it’s the subtler moments that resonate the fullest: Sorowitsch’s tireless struggles to defeat the dollar; the arrival of a ping pong table; the realization that their dressier clothes have comes from other camp victims; the fate of the ‘new shoe’ gang. It all adds up to a powerful, if rather predicable vision. We know where most of this story is going (after all, it’s being told in flashback). But the journey toward such a revelation is rife with engaging ideas and unforgettable performances. The Counterfeiters may represent a heretofore unknown aspect of Hitler’s reign of terror, but it remains a story well worth telling.