Monday, November 30, 2009

Musing Pictures: The Counterfeiters (2007)

There is something that makes me uncomfortable about "The Counterfeiters", and it has something to do, I think, with what makes it a powerful film.  The Austrian/German co-production, released in 2007, is another link in a two-decade-long chain of Holocaust films
.  This time, the focal point of the narrative is Operation Bernhard, a Nazi economic warfare project, and Salomon Sorowitsch, the expert counterfeiter who is tasked with making it work.

In some very clear ways, the film (like all Holocaust film since 1993) is a response to Spielberg's "Schindler's List".  In that film, a non-Jew (Schindler) shows us (the identity-free public) that we, too, can make a significant difference in the lives of those around us.  As individuals, we can be tremendously powerful.

The tone in "The Counterfeiters" is rather different.  Salomon (to him, being Jewish is little more than a coincidental nuisance) shows us the path of least resistance.  To get out of work details in Mauthausen, Salomon agrees to paint portraits and propagandistic murals for the Nazis.  When he is brought in to run Operation Bernhard, he is tasked with the creation of what could have become the war's most catastrophic economic weapon: the counterfeit US Dollar.  Again and again, Salomon is challenged about his willingness to work on the Nazi project. His response is always a selfish emphasis on his own desire to live another day.  He does not express concern for other Jews, nor does he see himself as a 'Jewish' victim -- he was arrested, after all, for counterfeiting, not for being Jewish.  When Salomon finds out that a member of his counterfeiting team is sabotaging their work, he refuses to name names, to identify the saboteur, but not because of a Jewish or ideological allegiance.  It's a part of the criminal's code of honor - you don't rat out your fellow criminal. (this code of honor appears in German films as far back as Fritz Lang's "M" (1931))

It is clear, in the end, that the hero of "The Counterfeiters" is not Salomon, but the saboteur in his ranks, the man who risked his life to prevent the Nazis from getting their hands on this potent piece of economic warfare.  But we aren't ever expected to see ourselves in the hero's shoes.  We identify with Salomon.

Perhaps that's a hard pill to swallow.  After we saw the film, my wife turned to me and asked, "what would you have done?"  It's not an easy question to answer.  Would I have quietly aided the enemy in order to survive another day?  Or would I have died making a grand statement against them?  The American version of the Holocaust features the grand self-sacrifice, and celebrates those who took tremendous risks to save others around them.  But what about those who took tremendous care to save themselves?  How are we to view them?  I'm not so sure.  All I know is that this film tells just such a story, asks just such a question, and leaves it to us to find our own answers.