What can you buy with a hundred dollars? Today, a Broadway ticket. In 1977, a barrel of crude oil. In 1954, an ounce of gold. And in 1936, in Germany, for Jewish forger Salomon Sorowitsch, incarcerated in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, a hundred American dollars bought the lives of five men.
At least, that’s how the story goes according to writer/director Stefan Ruzowitsky in his bleak film Die Fälscher, or The Counterfeiters. Sorowitsch, played by a gaunt Karl Marcovics with machined precision, is tasked by his Nazi captors to do the impossible: forge the British pound, and then the American dollar, with such perfection so as to fool the Bank of England and the Federal Reserve Bank. It’s a mission which tears Sorowitsch in half – his politics, condition and compatriots say no, but as the most notorious counterfeiter in all Germany (and arguably all Europe), capable of false identity papers, forged passports and fake Reichsmark, his profession and pride say yes.
The first section of Counterfeiters depicts Sorowitsch’s previous life – the gambling, the women, the general debauched habits of a man who literally makes his money. He invites an attractive woman back to his apartment and workshop, which is where and how the Gestapo find him the following morning. His Grimm fairy-tale existence quickly becomes the much grimmer reality of the concentration camp at Sachsenhausen.
The rest of Counterfeiters depicts the day-to-day survival of Sorowitsch and his friends inside the camp (think Saving Private Ryan without any salvation or privacy). It is a miserable, degrading existence where ordinary men, traumatized beyond repair by having their wives and children ripped from their hands, try to kill themselves faster than the concentration camp itself. Men who fall ill are shot by the SS to prevent other prisoners from becoming infected – in this place, the common cold is a deadly disease. Supplies are short everywhere; the medic has no medicine. As the film trickles along, we realize the scarcity is not merely Nazi savagery. The Germans are bankrupt.
Hence Sorowitsch’s predicament. He can do the right thing by his country and conscience, pass up the chance of a lifetime and be summarily executed, or he can have his crowning achievement, save himself and his friends, and directly fund the Nazi war machine. He chooses to stay alive, which is easier said than done. The Germans are on shrinking deadlines as the Allies make headway on both fronts. Sorowitsch tries to neither have his cake nor eat it: he tolerates mistakes and mischief to delay the counterfeiting effort, doing his best not to help the Germans while being forced to help them. This only provokes their wrath, and Counterfeiters pulls no punches – we have the benefit of history and hindsight; we see and hear everything.
It is powerful moviemaking. The Jewish prisoners, drained of the will to enjoy life, to wake up each morning, to live, seem to have their energy echoed in the desaturated footage – the film is all blues and grays, as if the very celluloid has bled in commiseration with its subjects. The camera is stable when outside the camp and when focused on the Germans; shaky when with the Jews. Sergio Leone was noted for creating landscapes not only out of the Italian countryside, but of his actors; through his lens, a man’s face became pockmarked knolls of muscle stretched over bone. Ruzowitsky, or at least his cinematographer Benedict Neuenfels, creates a similar effect with Marcovics – his cheeks sunken, tiny valleys between zygomatic and mandible, his eye sockets small dark pools, his nose a misshapen mesa.
At the same time, I’m not sure what The Counterfeiters seeks to add to the long, decorated list of Nazi-exposé films. The Holocaust motion picture is by now its own war movie subgenre, with over 100 narrative films (and over 100 documentaries) stretching from Stalag 17 (1953) and the Czech classic The Shop on Main Street (1965) to Sophie’s Choice (1982) and Steven Spielberg’s pet project and magnus opus, Schindler’s List (1993). I will never erase the image of Ralph Fiennes as Amon Göth using labouring Jews as target practice from his balcony. At some point, through one film or another, or even through a different medium, the horror of the Holocaust has hit home for most of us alive today. We know the Nazi genocidal project was one of the great modern tragedies – Aristotle, father of drama, would be shaken to his core.
Tragedy, according to the great Greek, is the imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude. But we’ve been there time and time again with World War II Germany. Aristotle failed to weigh in on an imitation of the imitations of an action, which is ultimately what The Counterfeiters is. It’s a very close forgery of the Nazi movie we’ve all seen before, so well-designed a forgery that we’re fooled into selling ourselves short.
Die Fälscher (The Counterfeiters)
Written and directed by Stefan Ruzowitsky.
With Karl Marcovics, Devid Striesow, August Diehl and Marie Bäumer.
98 minutes. Drama/War.