The Counterfeiters: a genuinely gripping tale
Stefan Ruzowitzky's film avoids the sentimentality, shock tactics and morality lessons that characterise so many Holocaust movies.
It’s 1936 and the bonvivant Russian Jew Salomon ‘Sally’ Sorowitscz is leading a life of card-playing, boozing and womanising in Berlin. Trained as an artist, he has abandoned the idea of making a living from his drawings. ‘Why earn money by making art?’ he says. ‘Making money by making money is much easier.’ Sorowitscz is a counterfeiter.
Adapted from an autobiography by Holocaust survivor Adolf Burger, the Austrian Stefan Ruzowitzky’s film The Counterfeiters tells the true story of Operation Bernhard, the largest counterfeiting operation in history. Set up by the Nazis in 1936 in an effort to weaken Allied economies by flooding them with fake banknotes, it was carried out by detainees in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp where a unit of jailed printers, typographers, graphic artists and others were overseen by Nazi camp guards.
In the film, a police inspector called Herzog arrests Sorowitscz in Berlin. A few years later, Herzog is in charge of the top-secret forgery unit in Sachsenhausen. He handpicks Sorowitscz from the Mauthausen camp, where the expert forger had earned special privileges by painting propagandistic murals and portraits of SS men and their families.
The prisoners in the Sachsenhausen forgery unit also earn special privileges. They get decent amounts of food and beds with mattresses and linen. They are allowed to let their hair grow and to take regular showers. They work with operettas as background music. As a reward for their perfect forgery of the British pound, Sturmbannführer Herzog gives the inmates a ping-pong table. Altogether, £134million was produced in the ‘Golden Cage’, as the inmates called their division.
Compared to the nightmarish conditions in the rest of the Nazi camps, the forgers of Sachsenhausen’s pristine Blocks 18 and 19 live a life of luxury. Yet they are not shielded from the horrors of the Holocaust. They can hear the ‘shoe-testing squad’ of inmates running in circles outside their blocks, sometimes until they collapse and are shot by guards. They find nametags of gassed Jews in the second-hand coats they are given when they arrive at the camp, and passport photographs of dead relatives amongst the material used to forge new documents. They assume that they will be executed at the end of the war and are constantly under the mercy of the mood swings of the trigger-happy camp guards.
The Counterfeiters is a suspense-filled, engaging and entertaining film. It is also very uncomfortable to watch, not just because of the horrors is depicts and insinuates, but also because it pushes us to judge the men in the ‘Golden Cage’.
By following orders to forge the pound and later the dollar, the counterfeiters help the Nazi war effort. But if they refuse to take orders or if they sabotage the operation, they face execution. In the film this quandary is embodied by Sorowitscz – the pragmatic survivalist whose prison uniform is marked both by the yellow star of Jews and the green triangle of ‘habitual criminals’ – and by Burger – the young, leftist idealist who was detained for distributing anti-Nazi leaflets. While Sorowitscz works hard to comply with the Nazis’ demands in order to survive, Burger tries to persuade him and the others to revolt.
Burger, one of two surviving members of the Sachsenhausen forgery unit, whose memoirs the film is based on, is depicted as a conscientious and dignified man. He sabotages the forging operation by ruining the gelatine needed for printing dollar bills. But this character is not always convincing; it seems Burger’s worthiness has been exaggerated in order to be juxtaposed with Sorowitscz’s pragmatism and the others’ basic aim of surviving as long and as comfortably as possible. Yet at the same time, Burger’s preference for heroism isolates him as he puts the others at risk for a mission that is unlikely to achieve much more than a certain death for him and his fellow inmates.
Despite its flaws, The Counterfeiters is a refreshing antidote to the way the Holocaust is discussed and understood today. On the one hand, it is seen as a historical event beyond scrutiny and debate, on the other hand it is dragged into discussions and campaigns on everything from abortion to bullying and climate change. The Holocaust is constantly referred to as a way of demarcating the lines between right and wrong, good and evil. As such it has been turned into a moral absolute for our relativistic times, but, ultimately, this reduces the Holocaust – the greatest calamity of the twentieth century – to a moral lesson and a mere symbol of evil.
Ruzowitzky does seem to have fallen into the temptation to assert that there are clear parallels between the Holocaust and the present-day. In an interview, the director said that the question of whether it is possible to play ping-pong in a concentration camp ‘while a few metres away people are being tortured to death’ is ‘no different than the question: is it possible to take an all-inclusive vacation to a place where people are starving to death nearby. Is it possible to enjoy our rich, sheltered lives in the face of all the suffering in the world?’
Still, these comparisons do not come through in Ruzowitzky’s film. Instead, The Counterfeiters avoids giving simplistic morality lessons or neat resolutions and it does not rely on sentimentality or shock tactics in order to convey the immensity of the Nazi atrocities.
The loaded symbolism of the Holocaust as a historical event with stark divisions between victims and perpetrators, and the temptation to fall back on it when explaining contemporary predicaments might explain why it persists as a popular theme for many filmmakers. Yet rather than turning the Holocaust into a black-and-white parable of right and wrong, The Counterfeiters shows that we cannot simply apply intuitive moral sensibilities when trying to understand what those who experienced the dire and dehumanising events of the Holocaust went through.
Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor at spiked.