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On Movies: The Counterfeiters

Karl Markovics and Dolores Chaplin enjoy life before the Nazis in "The Counterfeiters."
Jat Jurgen Olczyk | Sony Pictures Classics

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Sixty-three years after the fall of the Third Reich uncovered the stark horror of the Nazi concentration camps, and 61 years after the first publication of “The Diary of Anne Frank” put an unforgettable human face  on Hitler’s murder of 6 million Jews, the Holocaust remains one of the  central stories of our time, a story of immense moral weight that lends  itself to fiction, to nonfiction, and from time to time – as in the  recent case of the woman who claimed to have been saved from the Nazis  by wolves -- one masquerading as the other. We are haunted by the Holocaust, as we should be.

There have been literally hundreds of feature films and documentaries about the Holocaust over the years, including such major Hollywood productions as “Sophie’s Choice” and “Schindler’s List,” and the number  keeps growing. Coming on the heels of “The Rape of Europa,” a superb documentary about the Nazis confiscating works of art, the latest Holocaust-inspired film to come to St. Louis is an Austrian-German production called “The Counterfeiters,” which opens April 4. “The Counterfeiters,” about Jews who survived in a concentration camp by forging British and American currency for the Nazis, is a existential moral tale molded intro a thriller. It asks the question posed by most good Holocaust films – how far should a human being go to survive when death is almost certain?

The central figure is a Jew named Salomon (“Sally) Sorowitsch, a forger who is fully partaking of the wine, women and tangoes of “Cabaret”-era Berlin when he is arrested for counterfeiting and sent to prison and then to a concentration camp. The next time we see him, World War II is raging and Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics) has managed to survive by painting idealized portraits of Nazi officers and their families. “One must adapt or die,” he proclaims. Then, he is transferred to a new camp, Sachsenhausen, where he is put in charge of a cadre of Jewish printers, engravers and other specialists whose mission is to counterfeit Allied currency. The goal is to flood Great Britain and America with so many phony bills that their economies will collapse.

In return for their services, the Jewish counterfeiters are imprisoned in their own small compound and given minimally decent food and living conditions. The daily horrors of the concentration camp surrounding them are unseen but inescapably heard through the walls of their barracks. Sorowitsch and most of the prisoners, with reluctance and guilt, accept the cruel terms of their survival. Some even take a certain amount of pride in the skills of their work, but one man, a Communist named Adolph Burger (August Diehl), vehemently argues that the prisoners should sabotage the project to support the Allies.

Like many Holocaust movies, “The Counterfeiters” is a fictionalized version of real events. The script was adapted by director Stefan Ruzowitzky from a memoir by the real Adolph Burger, although it is told from Sorowitsch’s point of view. Sorowitsch’s goal is survival for himself and his fellow counterfeiters; and, under his stewardship, they manage to produce near-perfect copies of British banknotes. Sorowitsch cannot hide some pride in the bills, but he never comes close to the  level of psychological capitulation shown by the Alec Guinness character in “Bridge on the River Kwai,” who sees the bridge built for the  Japanese by the prisoners under his command as a triumph of the British will and not as a gift to the enemy.

When Burger begins delaying the printing process for American bills by creating chemical failures, Sorowitsch risks death by refusing to denounce him to the Nazis. Instead, he tells the Nazis that the failures are due to problems with “the gelatine.” And he keeps telling them that as the failures mount up. Sorowitsch, the nimble existential outlaw whose background as a criminal has prepared him to manipulate what is in essence a massive criminal enterprise run by the Nazis, is able to  balance survival with honor, at least for a while, by stalling the  increasingly angry Germans. As the Allies advance across Europe and the lives of the counterfeiters become more and more precarious, the movie  becomes a gripping race between salvation and annihilation.

“The Counterfeiters” is a valuable and emotionally compelling addition to a genre that boasts number of fine films. One key to its dramatic power is that the characters are realistic enough -- flawed enough -- that the viewer can not only believe in them but identify with them. With its dark, sombre cinematography, depicting a physical and emotional landscape bled of color, and its almost slapdash cinema verite camerawork, the film puts you in the middle of undeniable horror that is emotionally and morally disorienting, and leaves you wondering, “What  would I have done?” In the end, it is difficult to argue with the choices made by the Jewish counterfeiters of Sachsenhausen.

Other openings:

In “Married Life,” a satirical dark comedy set at the midpoint of the 20th century, secrets and lies thrive like crab grass in the lushly lawned suburbs of America.

The principal human traits pierced by the movie’s mordant wit are selfishness, egotism and hypocrisy. A prosperous businessman named Harry Allen (Chris Cooper) wants to trade in his wife (Patricia Clarkson) for his young blond mistress (Rachel McAdams). Instead of asking for a divorce, Harry, in his immense arrogance, manages to convince himself that his wife would be so miserable without him that she would be better off dead. So he decides to kill her with poison, a coward’s kind of murder.

His wife, meanwhile, more resourceful than Harry could ever imagine, would really like to leave him for her own partner in adultery, a handsome young man from down the street, but she is convinced Harry would be so lost without her he might take his own life. So, with a sigh, she decides it would be best to stay married to Harry -- and, presumably, keep sneaking around with the neighbor.

Meanwhile, Harry makes the mistake of introducing his mistress to his best friend (Pierce Brosnan, who, like Sean Connery, has demonstrated that playing James Bond can lead to meatier roles). Nothing good can come of introducing your mistress to a character played by Pierce Brosnan.

Harry’s scheme to murder his wife proceeds through most of the film as he and the other main characters engage in a complex dance that combines Hitchcockian suspense and film noir hormonal nastiness with dialogue that seethes with the kind of double and triple meaning you might find in the politer portions of a Pinter play.

“Married Life,” directed by Ira Sachs (“Forty Shades of Blue”), manages to seem simultaneously like a period piece and like something bracingly contemporary, and it is quietly funny and, at times, quite chilling.

Harper Barnes is a contributor.

Harper Barnes
Harper Barnes' most recent book is Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement

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