The Counterfeiters

Posted by Marc Hodak on April 27, 2008 under Movie reviews | Comments are off for this article

OK, I accidentally took my wife to a Holocaust film. She would have been perfectly happy never to have seen one; she can’t stomach the violence. So, to prevent any similar misunderstandings out there, let’s be clear this is not a heist flick.

Instead, it’s a very well done film about a master counterfeiter, Salomon Sorowitsch, whose particular genius was put to use by the Nazis in a massive, desperate scheme to undermine the Allied economy. The film was “based on a true story” which, of course, means everything in it was made up except for the basic premise. The German’s Operation Bernhard, for real, created a lot of fake money–over 130 million British pounds in small denominations. But, like all good stories, this is mainly about relationships, which are revealed through the emotional and verbal content of the script. This script relied on the recollections of one of the survivors, Adolph Burger.

In the end, the interactions are stylized and organized in a sensible and powerful manner. That’s probably the best one can do for an event that evokes as much senselessness and powerlessness as the Holocaust. That Burger’s character is neither central nor particularly sympathetic, lends authenticity to the author’s recollections. Burger was willing to sacrifice himself and his fellow prisoners to deny the Germans the fruits of their talent, while Sorowitsch stood against him to preserve their lives for as long as possible. Both goals in a sense represented a blow to their enemy. In the end, via a delicate, somewhat accidental balance of sabotage and achievement, the counterfeiters sufficiently delayed their work so as to preserve their lives, while limiting the amount of cash that the Nazis could use.

The era was beautifully evoked with a photochrom feel and vintage tango music done slow. Sorowitsch was well-acted by Karl Markovics, whose face would do justice to a broken boxer. That the other prisoners and the Nazis were portrayed as two-dimensional characters is not a criticism of the film so much as a commentary of the extreme constraints under which all of these characters existed in that place and time. The film certainly deserved its Oscar. If you and your date can deal with the intensity of institutionalized violence, then you won’t be disappointed.

Aside: The book from which the film was made was motivated by the author’s disgust at Holocaust denial beginning in the 1970s. As well as being bothered by Holocaust deniers, I’m puzzled by the contradiction of virulent racists; how can they deny that someone actually tried to pull off something they claim was a virtue?

Second aside: It’s easy for people to visualize themselves in such horrible circumstances as acting heroically. Nobody sees themselves as a bad guy. That’s Dale Carnegie’s first rule of human nature. I was reminded of that by this film, where the person in charge of this gilded work gang saw himself as doing them a huge favor. This is what the real commandant had to say:

My name is Franz Ziereis, born 1903 in Munich, where my mother and brothers and sisters are still living. I, myself, am not a wicked man and I have risen through work.

In the same note, here is his description of the camp he commanded.

The inmates had to haul stones until they collapsed, then they were shot and their record was annotated “Trying to escape”. Others were driven into a fence made of charged high-tension wire. Others were literally torn to pieces by the dog named “Lord” belonging to the camp commander Bachmeyer who sicced it on the inmates. On 30 April 33, inmates of the camp office were ordered to assemble the court yard. There they were shot like wild animals by SS Oberscharfuehrer Niedermeyer and the Gestapoagent Polaska. Altogether, as far as I know, 65,000 inmates were murdered in Mauthausen. In most cases, I myself took part in the executions.

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