Thursday, March 31, 2016

Film Notes: The Counterfeiters

The Counterfeiters is an Austrian film (German with English subtitles), which garnered a host of awards when it was released back in 2007. The film is a historical reconstruction of the Nazi regime's attempt to round up the best forgers they could get their hands on, and in forced labour camps, compel them under threat of death to produce enough counterfeit notes in Pounds Sterling to wreck the British economy. Styled as "Operation Bernhard"; this scheme was based at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Filmmaker Stefan Ruzowitsky based his historical material on the memoirs of Adolf Burger, one of the forgers forced to work on the project.

The story covers pre, and post war material; but the bulk of the film takes place within the concentration camp, and the action centres around Salomon Sorowitch, a Jewish master forger. His skills are seen as essential by the Germans for producing millions of notes of high enough quality to fool the British into accepting the notes into their banks, causing catastrophic inflation. The Nazis longer term aim was to try a similar scheme on the economy of the USA.

Although set in a concentration camp, The Counterfeiters is a far cry from something like Schindler's List, or even The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. These prisoners had specialist skills, and were seen as invaluable to the regime who allowed them such so-called  "privileges"  as adequate nutrition and some entertainment. They lived in separate conditions quite unlike the poor victims of the total brutality being exacted upon fellow detainees, just the other side of a fence within the camp.

The film is nicely shot, the acting is classy, and the dialogue compelling. The savagery of the setting of the film, and some very upsetting scenes earn it a (15) certificate; however with some explanation I'd watch it with my kids who are younger than this - as it contains a number of important historical truths - and searching moral dilemmas.

The moral dilemmas come from the fact that the prisoners forced to work on Operation Bernhard are faced with a ghastly choice. If they resist the tasks they are given, or are seen to be delaying or sabotaging the effort, they will be summarily executed. Deadlines had to be met, and failure meant death. On the other hand, if the prisoners co-operate with the Nazi regime they are helping the Reich fight a dreadful war. They knew that their banknotes would be used initially to purchase goods such as petrol for the Reich, and then to assault the Allies' economies. They had to either offer their lives, or bankroll the evil of the Nazi regime.

Primo Levi's staggeringly disturbing reflections on his time in Auschwitz in books such as "The Drowned and The Saved", dwell much on the role of prisoners who sought to extend their lives through collaboration with the SS. This quite understandable, but morally grim, area Levi called "the grey zone". The Counterfeiters is a film set within this 'grey zone'. In the film different characters take on divergent roles. There are those who demand full compliance with the demands placed upon them, who seek personal survival at all costs. They rightly point out that the moral responsibility of the situation rests entirely on the shoulders of the perpetrators, and not on those of the victims. At the other extreme, one dedicated communist prisoner (who had less to lose as all those he loved had been murdered), demands total non-co-operation - and repeatedly sabotages the attempts to forge the US Dollar. Karl Markovitch is excellent as Salomon Sorowitch, the group leader, who ends up seeking to take a middle course; delaying the Nazi scheme as much as possible, while preventing the killing of as many of his group as he can.

When the camp is liberated by the Russians, the counterfeiters have to look the rest of the survivors in the eye. Gaunt, starved, ill and dying - these skeletal shadows assume that The Counterfeiters were Nazi's as they were in reasonable health.

The dilemma of being forced to chose between one's life and the lives of the whole group is pressed home to the viewer with great force. If the forgers resist, they will die. If they comply, many thousands more will die. The viewer is drawn into this dark drama, and into these deeply perplexing questions. The palpable sense of relief one feels when the Germans get what they want and a gun is taken away from a man's forehead, is suddenly offset with a sense that this was also a victory for evil, won by force. Emotionally, the film makes the viewer oscillate between the two options, and alternatively siding with contradictory points of view. You both want the Nazis to be resisted, but for the resisters to live; an option which short of a resurrection is impossible.

This is a brilliant, stirring, significant and thought provoking film, worth watching at any time of year. And this is where I thought this review would end.

However, it was only when I sat, mesmerised, watching the final credits roll - that something struck me. I watched the DVD on Thursday March 24th, the day before Good Friday. I, along with millions around the world would then spend a day remembering a Jewish man, who was imprisoned and tortured by a brutal oppressing empire, with the complicity of his fellow countrymen. Christians believe that Jesus' death wasn't a mere travesty of justice, or work of evil; but was also an act of redeeming self-sacrifice. The Gethsemene narrative records Jesus wrestling with the same dilemma that The Counterfeiters did, namely should I give my life to preserve the group - or save my own life and lose the greater war? Jesus is pictured as praying "is there any way that this cup (of suffering) can be taken from me?" But yet finally saying, "yet not my will but yours". In other words, he preferred to save the group, and not his own life. His life he gave, so that the whole group could live. Staggeringly, the group he chose to save, includes us.

Quite a film to watch at Easter.

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