“If I let you cheat me, tomorrow someone else will cheat me,” asserts Salomon Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics). “Soon they’ll all cheat me.” Making the rounds at a Berlin bar in 1936, “Sally,” a master forger and local fixture, is determined to keep a step ahead of the authorities and outwit his rival criminals. “It’s a matter of principle,” he explains. “It’s about my very existence, and for that, I could be driven to take extreme measures.”
Sally’s self-confidence is both pronounced and tenuous at the beginning of Stefan Ruzowitzky’s The Counterfeiters (Die Fälscher), this year’s Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film. Increasingly aware of the risks inherent in his career choice, Sally swaggers and solicits, keeps his customers contented and his subordinates in place, producing perfect-seeming papers for the right price (advised by a client that with his talent, he could be a great artist, Sally sniffs, “Why earn money by making art? Earning money by making money is much easier”). Undeterred by mundane morality, much less the plainly uncouth Nazis, Sally can’t imagine what’s ahead when he’s awakened one early morning — in bed with a beautiful client he should have left the night before — by police inspector Friedrich Herzog (David Striesow).
Sally’s initial transition from supercilious crook to dour survivor is rendered in a few deft strokes, the film assuming your familiarity with the conventions of the “concentration camp movie.” The Counterfeiters resists the genre’s usual reverential long takes, displaying atrocities or alluding to them gently, and is instead comprised of handheld, deeply shadowed, herky-jerky imagery, difficult and appalling. The hectic, too-close compositions resist resolution, echoing the predicaments facing Sally and other prisoners, in particular the impossibility of comprehending such radically new forms of violence.
Sally reads the first camp where he lands based on his previous experience in jail, demonstrating his dominance in the barracks, among fellow inmates. He doesn’t yet see what another prisoner notes, that “This is no jail, they’re going to kill us.” Sally slams a bully and reputed murderer up against a wall, assuring, “If you touch me, I’ll cut your throat,” still believing the “habitual criminals” are, as he’s been told, “worse than the SS.” But, as he and his fellow prisoners will soon learn, they can’t compete with the Nazis’ monstrous machinery, the astounding design and scope of their violence.
Soon revealed as a man of some ingenuity and specific skill, Sally is soon delivered to the Sachsenhausen camp. Here, along with Burger (August Diehl), erstwhile printer of anti-Nazi materials, and Russian art student Kolya (Sebastian Urzendowsky), Sally learns of his new assignment, to counterfeit British and American currency as the Nazis plan to destabilize their enemies’ economies (a scheme based on the true story of “Operation Bernhard,” recounted in the real life Burger’s memoir, The Devil’s Workshop). Because of his background, Sally is essentially put in charge of the operation, which makes him responsible for other lives, though he remains determined to focus on his own survival.
The film thus establishes a complex, compressed moral universe, in which choices are severely limited (the fact that Herzog oversees the operation only further condenses this universe). As Sally conceives one such option, he must either produce the perfect American dollar or die; Burger, who serves here a sort of social “conscience,” argues against furnishing the Nazis with such broadly effective means to wage war, essentially to finance the effort. A communist on the outside, Burger is resolute and angry, in part because his wife and fellow activist has been shipped to another camp, and in part because he sees politics through a moral lens (“The true criminals,” he points out, “are the capitalist exploiters. They’re the ones who made fascism possible”). Burger expresses the guilt at least some of the other prisoners feel as well; as they’re comparatively well fed and get to sleep on bunks with sheets, just over a wall, other prisoners are starving, marching in pointless circles (in order, essentially to wither away and die).
The debates between Sally and Burger become obvious means to develop the film’s thematic interests. When Burger resists printing dollars based on Sally’s plates (“My wife,” Burger contends, “said the reason we’re printers is to print the truth”), Sally insists on the more immediate end, the survival of the counterfeiting crew members, who have grown close in their extreme and ongoing vulnerability. “We’re alive,” Sally says, as if trying to convince himself, “That’s worth a hell of a lot.”
Sally’s certainty is tested, repeatedly and viciously. Per formula, he’s provided with a particular adversary at the camp, a psychopathic guard named Holst (Martin Brambach), whose abuses escalate exponentially, from beatings to threats to summary executions of sympathetic characters. In one heartbreaking scene, Holst enters a bathroom and stands tall in the frame over toilet cleaner Sally, whose face appears in painful close-up (the small space of the bathroom underscored by the low angle). Though the shot sets up the inevitable end of this scene/situation, the act is yet visceral and horrible, as Sally’s face and form remain pressed to the front of the frame when Holst pees on him. Sally’s response, silent but also furious, lays out the dilemma he’s been rationalizing throughout his tenure at the camp, his many negotiations with Herzog and his many quarrels with Burger. There’s no possible resolution or payback or escape. And that’s precisely the moral problem: there are no options for right behavior, only wrong and differently wrong, options that leave individuals burdened by guilt and fear. Everyone is cheated, endlessly.
A visit to Herzog’s home makes excessively clear how rationalizing obscures perspective and, most insidiously, hope. Herzog offers the forger a drink and introduces him to his wife and little blond children, while Sally can only look astounded. The wife makes an effort at small talk, marveling at her guest’s ostensible health: “How I wish certain East Coast circles in America could see you. You have no idea of the dreadful propaganda being circulated about the camps.” It’s as if Sally has been dropped into another dimension.
Listening to her, then contemplating his next actions back at the camp, Sally appears, by turns, taut, suspended, and forever traumatized. The images indicate — but don’t overstate — the perpetual shifting of Sally’s mind, as he strives to protect himself from monsters, outwit them, and at last to face them, and resist becoming one himself.