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Cash to Live On 

Perhaps the most telling moment in writer/director Stefan Ruzowitzky's Oscar-winning The Counterfeiters comes in a scene fundamentally outside its core narrative. A high-ranking German Nazi officer arranges a brief furlough for a concentration camp inmate. The prisoner is taken to the officer's house and introduced to the officer's wife and three children. Only steps away, fellow humans are being worked to death, beaten for sport and murdered on a whim. Yet the officer's house looks like something where TV's Ward Cleaver gave sage advice to his two sons. The officer's wife greets the prisoner as if he's a foreign dignitary and makes willfully ignorant comments about how his presence in their home proves that the Nazis aren't really mistreating the Jews. Stories of the Holocaust will be with us always, I suspect, because that great nightmare so utterly unmasked humankind's capacity for evil. The German officer and his wife are all the more chilling because in so many ways they are entirely ordinary. The Counterfeiters is the story of a daring and desperate attempt by the Nazis to replicate British and American currency during World War II. Their motives were twofold. Financially strapped as the war moved from the victories of blitzkrieg to the long retreat after defeat at Stalingrad, the Nazis wanted to pay neutral countries for needed supplies using counterfeit cash. At the same time, they hatched plans to flood the world banking markets with so many bogus pounds and dollars that the economies of the Western allies would collapse. The pivotal twist in this complicated plot was that the Nazis couldn't pull off the currency scam with their own people. Instead, they had to rely on a team of Jewish prisoners. How fortunate that they already had the men they needed housed in various concentration camps.

As depicted here, the key player in the Nazi scheme is Salomon 'Sally" Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics), a Russian Jew who escaped persecution by Stalin to find a period of prosperity in Berlin as a gambler and womanizer, funding his decadent lifestyle by counterfeiting passports and other identity papers. Sally is trapped and arrested by a cocky German policeman, Friedrich Herzog (Devid Striesow), and because Sally is Jewish, he's sent to a concentration camp rather than a conventional prison.

Fast forward from 1936 to 1941. Herzog is now the S.S. officer that Himmler assigns to the counterfeiting project. Herzog tracks down Sally and makes him a Faustian bargain. If Sally can successfully counterfeit the pound and the dollar, Herzog will see that he survives the war. In the meantime, Herzog will supply Sally with a team of sophisticated printers also scavenged from concentration camp incarceration. The counterfeiters will be housed in special barracks with comfortable beds and clean sheets. They will be well fed rather than systematically starved. They will be allowed to shower once a week. And even if Herzog cannot promise Sally that the other men will be allowed to survive the war's end, they will almost certainly live longer and better than they would otherwise. Sally doesn't hesitate to take the deal.

With this set-up, the film moves forward on two interlocking narrative fronts. In part, the picture is a character study about Sally's survival instincts. He is the classical existential hero: a man without beliefs and without hopes for the future. But he cherishes life mightily, and his will to live is unyielding. Yet, in trying to save himself, Sally is required to serve the cause of his tormenters. And the second strategy of the film is to employ Sally in a dialectical exchange with fellow inmate Adolf Burger (August Diehl) who is posted to the counterfeiting project as an expert printer. Burger argues that the men should sabotage their assignment " by sacrificing their own lives if necessary. To cooperate, he insists, would be shameful. Sally counters by asserting, 'Only by surviving can we beat them."

Ruzowitzky nicely lets these two positions stand opposed and undefeated. Sally and Burger proceed from opposite presumptions, but, however paradoxical, both are right. Sally does everything he can to save himself and those of the men around him, even if that means serving the interests of the Nazis. Burger does everything he can to stop the counterfeiting project from succeeding. Certainly Burger is the more noble, more conventionally principled figure. But, critically, despite his focus on survival, Sally is no collaborationist. And the razor's edge of his own moral imperatives will provide moviegoers with much to discuss.

click to enlarge In The Counterfeiters, the Nazis offer Adolph Berger (August Diehl, left) and Salomon "Sally" Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics, center) a chance at surviving the concentration camps if they help replicate western currencies. - 2007 SONY PICTURES CLASSICS
  • 2007 Sony Pictures Classics
  • In The Counterfeiters, the Nazis offer Adolph Berger (August Diehl, left) and Salomon "Sally" Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics, center) a chance at surviving the concentration camps if they help replicate western currencies.
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