For my days pass away like smoke,
and my bones burn like a furnace.
My heart is stricken and withered like grass;
I am too wasted to eat my bread.
Because of my loud groaning my bones cling
to my skin…
All day long my enemies taunt me;
those who deride me use my name for a curse.
For I eat ashes like bread, and mingle tears with
The Counterfeiters was made by Austrian director Stephan Ruzowitsky, and recently won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. The film tells about a little-known chapter in World War II his tory, called the Berhard Project. This was a Nazi plot based in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp that involved using top counterfeiters, who were all Jewish, to manufacture British pounds and American dollars in an attempt to sabotage Allied economies by flooding their currency markets. Although the Nazis were able to produce hundreds of millions of fake pounds, the prisoners successfully delayed the production of the dollar until late enough in the war that it made little difference. Adolph Burger, played in the film by August Diehl, recounted the plot in his memoir, The Devil’s Workshop, on which the film is based.
The main character in The Counterfeiters is Salomon “Sally” Sorowitsch, played with brilliant understatement by Karl Markovics. Sorowitsch is a rogue and a criminal, “the greatest counterfeiter in Europe,” but has the heart of an artist. He endures years in the prison camps by forging documents and painting portraits of Nazi officers, creative outlets that seem to contribute as much to his spiritual survival as they do to his daily rations. Late in the war, he is transferred to Sachsenhausen, where unlimited resources and permission to manufacture counterfeit currency initially seem to offer a dream job in the midst of a nightmare.
The SS commandant in charge of the project is Supervisor Friedrich Herzog (Devid Striesow). Running the counterfeiting unit like a Silicon Valley startup, he gives his prisoners civilian clothing and soft beds, plays them classical music while they work, and even sets up a ping pong table for them to use during their down time. “Working with people: that’s the future,” he says, as the counterfeiters hear other inmates being tortured and shot outside the barracks walls.
Either because of particular skills, education, or shrewdness at survival, the inmates are in a position where they have some moral agency. The unit doctor mentions that in previous camps where he worked, he made decisions about who lived and who died according to limited medical resources. The young Burger admits his position in Auschwitz was unloading the luggage of doomed prisoners; in sorting through their possessions, he often found food they had packed which he ate to survive. As the counterfeiters find themselves in almost bearable living conditions, they must deal with the guilt of surviving an atrocity that is murdering their families, their friends, and their fellow Jews. And they must decide from their relative position of power what, if anything, they can do to impede the Nazis.
Sorowitsch at first lives by a criminal’s ethic that “One adapts or dies.” Burger, mostly out of communist revolutionary ideals, refuses to cooperate and tries to sabotage the operation. At one point, Sorowitsch’s criminal ethic (never rat out a member of the gang) saves Burger, as he continually insists to the suspicious Nazis that Burger is not holding up the project. As things progress, however, Sorowitsch the hardened criminal finds himself moved by an increasingly difficult moral quandary: successful production of the fake currency is necessary to both his survival and that of his fellow prisoners, some of whom he has come to care about, but it also aids the Nazis in their demonic agenda and perhaps extends the war.
At first glance, the film may seem to bear resemblance to Schindler’s List, in which Jewish workers are saved through a scheming German factory owner who learns to use his dishonest tendencies for good. But The Counterfeiters is a fundamentally different film. For one, it is smaller-scale in every way – it doesn’t attempt an epic recounting of the Holocaust as does Schindler’s List. Nor does it attempt to carve heroes out of this horrific era; the counterfeiters survive with varying qualities of goodness and evil, resistance and complicity. The film has more in common with the absurdist tradition of Beckett and Camus than the historical blockbuster of Spielberg.
One scene that the viewer experiences as harrowing during the film, on reflection reveals itself as bitterly absurd. The counterfeiters hear a prisoner, one they cannot see, shot outside their barracks, and several of the stray bullets blast through the fence into their courtyard. The commandant, Herzog, yells at his underling for putting the counterfeiters at risk, “You could have shot my Jews!” This scene brings to mind C.S. Lewis’ observation that a sure sign a situation is purely evil is that it would be funny if it were not so tragic, brutal, and inhumane.
1) What kinds of moral questions about privilege does the film bring up? How does the situation of the counterfeiters compare to degrees of privilege in the current economy, say of the working poor in America compared to those who live in the Third World?
2) The film also asks important questions about power. How far should individuals go in exercising limited power against evil when there may not be tangible results?
3) How is Sorowitsch like Jacob in the Hebrew Bible? What is the purpose of trickster characters like Jacob and Sorowitsch appearing in Jewish history?
4) A prisoner in the film tells a joke: “Why isn’t God in Auschwitz?…He didn’t make it through the selection process.” Is there any “God” to be found in the survival of several prisoners in the film, including Sally, when so many others were killed?
Reviewed by Richard Lindsay, a PhD student in art and religion at Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA.