Director: Stefan Ruzowitzky, 2007.
The opening scene of The Counterfeiters shows a disheveled man in a scruffy suit sitting on a riviera beach. It's Monte Carlo and the man enters the finest hotel and pays with a wad of cash taken from a briefcase packed with money. It's 1945 and the war is over. Something is afoot. The rest of the film takes us back to 1936 where the story starts before leading us through the Holocaust years.
The man is Salomon "Sally" Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics). A Jew in Berlin, he was the "King of the Counterfeiters," a swindler and a crook. Though he had tremendous artistic ability he found it was "easier to make money making money." A life of toil was anathema to him. His was a life of easy (fake) money, wine and women. That is, until CID Superintendent Friedrich Herzog (Devid Striesow) breaks into Sally's secret workroom where he is "working" with a beautiful woman.
Sent to a concentration camp rather than a prison, his artistic skills draw attention to him and soon Sally is given better treatment than the other prisoners. Of course, better treatment means no forced labor and a little food. But even the Germans in their vanity want someone to paint portraits of themselves. Ultimately, his skills cause him to be moved to Sachsenhausen, another concentration camp.
It is at Sachsenhausen that Sally comes face to face once again with Herzog, the leader of Operation Bernhard, a German counterfeiting plot. Sally is forced to use his skills to enable the Germans to counterfeit the British pound. Since the Germans were close to being bankrupt, flooding the allies with fake money could damage their economies. If the counterfeits were good enough, the Germans could use them to bankroll their war efforts.
Sally and the others in the group of prisoners have been hand-picked for their skills in art, photography and counterfeiting. In return for working for this operation, they get "luxury accommodations," an actual bed and enough food to survive without becoming skeletal. Yet, they can hear the screams of the other prisoners being tortured and murdered. If they failed or refused, they would be back in the regular concentration camp barracks where death was an ever-present reality.
The Counterfeiters is the true story of this economic warfare strategy of the Germans during WW2. It is the first Austrian movie to win an Oscar for foreign film. Despite the unique narrative premise and attention to period detail, the movie ebbs somewhat. Perhaps there have been too many Holocaust movies and they have cauterized our sensitivities. The main characters are too distant to evoke emotional identification. We watch the film but don't get caught up in a real care for them. Herzog is too nice as a Nazi leader, perhaps trying to motivate these men to quality work. Sally is caught between his criminal character and the moral dilemma he faces.
The dilemma comes from Sally's leadership position. He is able to pick those who work with him. In doing so, he is "playing God" since those not working or pulling their weight could either be shot by the guards immediately or be put back into the camp where death is deferred but still likely. Sally carries the burden of life and death even while himself a prisoner under the weight of possible death. Does he care about others to save them? Or is he doing his work simply to save himself?
A contrast comes in the person of Adolf Berger (August Diehl), an idealistic prisoner working in the dark room, who has lost his family in other concentration camps. He wants to fight back in any way possible. And the best way he can is to sabotage the negatives of the fake pounds. By stalling these counterfeiting efforts he is fighting the enemy. So while Sally is actively working with the Germans to keep his life, Berger is only ostensibly working with them while actually working against them. When Herzog realizes things are not on track he makes it clear: produce results or targeted men will die. Herein is Sally's specific dilemma: does he force Berger to work and produce or does he let "his" men be executed?
Salomon's dilemma is a little like that of Mladen in the recent Serbian film The Trap. Whereas Mladen faced the choice of killing a man or letting his son die, Sally must choose to help the enemy possibly win the war (whereupon he and his team would very likely be executed) or see his team (and possibly him) be killed.
This raises the question: what is the ethically appropriate response? What is the right thing to do to survive? As we see others being cruelly executed by the enemy, should we help that very enemy if it means we might live a little longer? What if the choice is such that a friend will die if we cannot produce results? One of the characters in a smaller role makes the point that he was a banker who did no wrong and now he is being forced into criminal work. When faced with our own mortality it would take a strong person to refuse to do what is required. The human instinct for survival is strong. Choosing to work to spare a friend's life seems to be choosing the lesser of two evils. Yet, what if the work caused the enemy to prevail and result in all the people being killed? What would have been gained under these circumstances? Only a prolongation of life for some, and a major loss of life for many. So, this is indeed a difficult question.
Most of us, thankfully, do not find ourselves in the midst of incarceration and coercion. Yet, for followers of Jesus we are in a spiritual war (Eph. 6:12). And when we sin we are being coerced, by Satan or by our own fleshly desires, to aid the enemy in his attempts to defeat Christ. We may do this for pleasure or for economic gain, for sensual or financial survival. Yet the truth is, we are not in the dilemma Sally faced. We have life (Jn 10:10). We don't need to look elsewhere for life or joy or satisfaction. Our truest satisfaction is found in God, and in glorifying him. We should cast out anything that is counterfeit and let our faith and our life be authentic.
Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs