From 1942 until the end of World War II, the German government, hoping to destabilize the Allies’ economies, engineered the largest counterfeiting operation in the world. Using Jewish artisans culled from the prisoners of Sachsenhausen and Auschwitz, Operation Bernhard produced over £134 million during its three-year existence and was beginning to generate American dollars when imminent Allied victory forced its relocation from Sachsenhausen to Mauthausen-Gusen, effectively halting production. Details of the scheme were revealed in the memoirs of Adolf Burger, a Slovakian printer who was discovered in 1942 printing forged baptismal certificates for Jews, interned, and enlisted among the counterfeiters. He is still alive and was shown every draft of the script for The Counterfeiters (Die Fälscher, at the Avon through Thursday), the Austrian movie based on his story. I have not read the memoirs—I’m not sure that they have been translated into English—so I don’t know how lively they are, or how honest their sentiments; but the film has a fugitive’s avidity, as if unsure of its right to be where it is and to do what it’s doing. This, certainly, is the feeling of the counterfeiters themselves, who have been rescued from hard labor and gas chambers so that they can work in professional comfort while producing the financial means for eventual German victory, and it seems to have infiltrated the ranks of the filmmakers. Perhaps they are aware that a movie about counterfeit—something that looks enough like the real thing to pass for it—risks becoming counterfeit, or exposing its own tricks through its subject. And so The Counterfeiters is full of distractions—an insistent, ironic soundtrack; a jittery, jumpy camera; and three unfinished plots crammed into less than one hundred minutes—meant to keep us from observing its fakery.
Director Stefan Ruzowitzky seems unable to decide what story to tell; we learn a little about prewar Berlin’s master counterfeiter Salomon Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics, playing a composite based on Salomon Smolianoff), a little about the mechanics of Operation Bernhard, and a little about the question of how to endure persecution: is it better to resist oppression and risk death, or to acquiesce to its demands and, perhaps, survive? Burger, we understand, is committed to resistance and to his own martyrdom: his world is an expression of principles, without which it is an uninhabitable void. Sorowitsch, whose solipsism and cynicism appear modeled on Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine (even if he looks more like a banged-up Bing Crosby), is a member of Berlin’s sensual, sophisticated class; for him, principles are a matter of practicality and utility: existence precedes essence. When they are thrown together as counterfeiters, their philosophies conflict. Burger wants to sabotage the project, and thus the Nazi enterprise, by producing flawed etchings of the dollar, while Sorowitsch simply wants to survive—survival being the only triumph that matters. The Counterfeiters is about making money but it is also about selling out: what does it profit a man to gain the world but lose his soul? Well, he gains the world.
But Ruzowitzky, his script and camera tightly trained on Sorowitsch and Burger, fails to envision the world that Fascists would make and Sorowitsch, should he survive, would gain. Indeed, the violent reality of Nazi rule that intrudes on the counterfeiters’ cloistered life is too abstracted for us to sympathize with Burger’s position; although we glimpse the camp's brutality, we remember Berlin’s nightlife from the film’s early scenes and believe that beyond the gray skies and barbed wire of the concentration camp those parties are still pulsing, or are at least only in remission. The incessant soundtrack—all tango, all the time—reinforces this misapprehension; only in rare moments of silence do we tremble.
In a word, the film is too particularized. Benedict Neuenfels’s camera is an agitated, anxious narrator: it translates personal terror but forfeits any claims to objectivity and moral authority. The existential menace of Fascism is reduced to the personal threat of capricious and barbaric camp guards—and no, no one is prepared to die just to spite his boss. But this isn’t the point. A wider lens and a steadier eye might be able to show us the thing that Burger really fears: a world that isn’t worth living in. What we get instead of a movie about horror is a horror movie. Since we know, thanks to the film’s framing device, that Sorowitsch will survive; and we know, thanks to the film’s subtitles, that the main action of the movie begins not long before the war’s conclusion, we spend our time counting the days and hoping everyone survives. It's a concentration camp as haunted house. The film’s irony saps its philosophical, and mortal, urgency.
The Counterfeiters was meant to be a fine movie, as precise and dangerous as an etcher’s tool—its specificity and subjectivity were supposed to distinguish it from lumberingly didactic movies about persecution—but it ends up being slight. We were meant to feel trapped with the counterfeiters in their untenable plight, and caught with Burger and Sorowitsch in fierce philosophical conviction. But Ruzowitzky lacks the filmic and philosophical vocabulary to make this immediacy mean anything. While a tango blares and the camera shakes, Burger and Sorowitsch spar furtively around an elusive moral center, the terms of their combat inarticulate and equivocal.