There is an awful predictability to films dealing with the Holocaust, but Stefan Ruzowitsky’s The Counterfeiters (2007) manages to mute those elements and deliver a very human story that transcends place and convention, somewhat akin to The Book Thief (2013) or Life Is Beautiful (1997). The Counterfeiters is the tale of a man’s journey through cynical pragmatism to an affirmation of life and love. Despite the images often dark, one leaves the film with a sense of the wonder of redemption, of how people can be pulled out of the abyss and into the bright light of day through human sympathy and sometimes just enough grace to grant survival.
The film sketches the experience of Salomon Sorowitsch, arrested in Berlin for counterfeiting and imprisoned during the war at Sachsenhausen, where the Nazis had set up quarters for a group of print experts under Operation Bernhard, a failed scheme to flood England and America with counterfeit pounds and dollars and so collapse the national banks. Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics) is appointed project leader, and the film traces the experiences of those around him and at the center of the nefarious scheme, principally Burger (August Diehl), who wrote the story, and who was a prisoner at Sachsenhausen and who as project typographer attempted to delay the counterfeiting operation through subtle sabotage throughout the print process.
Sorowitsch and Burger approach their missions from different angles. While Burger is a moral idealist with a legitimate interest in destroying the Nazi operation, as his wife was killed at Auschwitz, Sorowitsch is the consummate pragmatist. His default is to use his various gifts for survival and self gain. Early in the film we see him creating a false passport for a young woman but encouraging her to his bed as payment. She goes willingly, but the viewer is left with a sour taste. What Shylock is this who exacts a pound of flesh for security under such circumstances?
Recently I had occasion to reread Coleridge’s famous “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” the classic Gothic ballad of a sailor doomed as result of wantonly killing an albatross, a bird of good omen that happens to follow a ship on a dangerous journey in the South Atlantic. The mariner killing the albatross with his crossbow commits the original sin in the ballad, for the random act eventuates in the death of the entire crew except the mariner who is left to recount the tale to strangers he meets later. However, dark as is the deed and its consequence, the telling of the tale proves purgative, for after killing the bird and suffering the loss of all who counted on him, the mariner in his brokenness blesses a group of sea snakes which happen to pass his doomed ship; and by blessing the snakes he in effect reverses the curse. Spirits come to guide the wreck to shore, and the mariner reenters the land of the living having learned the valuable lesson that all life is sacred.
That was a tale the poet Coleridge understood well, for as a young man he married a woman he did not love as part of a utopian scheme to establish a commune on the banks of the Susquehanna far across the ocean from his native England. A pipe dream if there ever was one, but one with terrible consequence for his poor wife and their children. How many times must he have looked upon those sleeping faces and wondered how he could have toyed with their lives in so irreversible a way. But he must have blessed them as well, as we always bless those caressed by peaceful sleep while we wrestle against the world, the flesh, and the devil. Coleridge would do his best to reverse the trajectory of the tragedy he had created through the remainder of his troubled life. He learned to bless the unloved, and that taught him to love, and selfless love then brought him to grace.
So Sorowitsch, the cynical Jewish criminal, learns in The Counterfeiters that life is more than mere survival and self-service. He passes through the underworld of Nazi cruelty and discovers that even there all life is sacred, as much in a prison camp as in a woman’s bed. To do all to protect the self, independent of others who suffer nearby, to assent to a counterfeiting plot, be it inside the Nazi camp or in society at large, is to use people to gain the next pack of cigarettes and set of clean linens. It is like all transgressions an assault on the divine image in us and the divine beyond us. In the film’s climactic scene Sorowitsch will carry from the prison compound, deserted by the Nazis with the Allied arrival, a young man who has committed suicide in despair over the murder of his own family at Auschwitz and his inability to face freedom with memories so scarred.
Sorowitsch carries the man out to find an appropriate place for burial although the camp offers no appropriate places. The camera follows his journey as it might Christ’s toward Calvary, and the viewer concludes that God will determine the affairs of the wretched man, suicide or not. As for Sorowitsch, he has changed course and left his old life forever in pitying the lost soul, and that is enough; his redemption, building through the film in a series of graduated gestures, has come to flower.
The action around the counterfeit operation at Sachsenhausen is framed by a sequence after the war with Sorowitsch in Monte Carlo, teased by a new prosperity to return to his old ways, now with a fine edge come from the stone of misery he has scraped against. The temptation cannot last long, however, and the film will conclude with his renunciation of all the world has to offer and his affirmation that true life is centered on more enduring things than poker chips and smoky rooms and alluring women.
To write further will spoil this fine little work, winner of the best foreign film Academy Award in 2007, and deserving the honor. Well-crafted and tightly narrated with compelling performances by the leads Markovics and Diehl—The Counterfeiters will stay with you long after the gray horrors of Nazi cruelty fade to black.