07 October 2008
"Nobody's prepared to die for a principle."
"That's why the Nazi system works."
From The Counterfeiters.
What price would you pay to stay alive? Would you help your enemy? The same enemy that has brutalized you and killed your wife, or parents or friends? How far should a person go to preserve their own life when that's all they have left?
These are some of the questions asked in The Counterfeiters (2007) the most recent winner of Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film. Director Stefan Ruzowitzky's film is another in a very long line of excellent films exploring topics related to World War II. This is the true story of a counterfeiting operation run at the behest of the Nazi regime by prisoners, many Jews transferred from such concentration camps as Auschwitz. It remains the biggest counterfeiting operation ever It successfully produced millions of British pounds and some American dollars. Ultimately it was too little too late to significantly prolong the war or change its course.
The Counterfeiters centers around a Russian Jew named Salomon 'Sally' Sorowitsch who was arrested before the war for -- what else? -- counterfeiting. His colorful criminal life in Berlin is told much too quickly. The Counterfeiters is the rare case of a film that is too short, giving glimpses where we'd like a longer look.
Inevitably the audiences witnesses Nazi cruelties that are de regure in any film of this nature. Capricious violence, sudden executions, back breaking labor and sadistic Nazis not only make for powerful cinema but also for accurate history.
Sally is transferred from the Mauthahausen concentration camp to the relative comfort of the camp where the counterfeiting operation will take place. He is joined by other prisoners who the Nazis have culled from various camps for their expertise. Sally seems the prize catch. Unlike the prisoners in the regular camp adjacent to them, these servants of the Reich are offered rewards. Music is played at all times to inspire them. They have comfortable beds and relatively decent food. At one point they are rewarded with a ping pong table.
But are they selling their souls? After all, the prisoners are aware that despite and in some ways because of their unique role they will inevitably be executed at the end of the war or sooner if they cease to be of use. Freedom is never an option. Meanwhile loved ones are still in camps or already dead. So why serve these evil masters?
Why not refuse to work and face certain death bravely? Perhaps its not so easy. Certainly risking one's life by charging into battle is a more palatable notion than awaiting death by inaction.
In this case there is one prisoner, Adolph Burger, willing to face death, so great is his hatred of the Nazi regime. But by doing so he risks all their lives Has he the right to do this? The Nazis sense someone is not "playing ball." Interestingly Sally, despite his fierce quarrels with Burger wont expose him. After all, its rule number one in the criminal code of conduct: you don't rat out a comrade.
Deals are made and agreements reached and along the way we are left to ponder the seemingly imponderable. What is our life if we sacrifice core beliefs to extend it? How does one strike bargains with evil without helping sustain that evil?
While The Counterfeiters falls a bit short of greatness as cinema with its unwillingness to allow the camera and the actors to fully explore scenes it does a wonderful job of asking these questions and offering insight into possible answers. The film is also a strong contribution to our understanding to such powerful historical moments as World War II and the Holocaust.