I’m not a big movie fan, so I don’t know what tempted me to check out an Austrian foreign-language film from my local public library entitled “The Counterfeiters (2007).” Based on Adolf Burger’s true-life memoir “The Devil’s Workshop,” it’s about a group of Jews in Sachsenhausen concentration camp who were part of a secret Nazi forced-labor project to forge British pounds and American dollars to finance the Nazi war machine and bankrupt the West. Because of the scheme’s top-secret nature, the Nazis used Jewish artisans and forgers who would be killed after their job was complete, so there would be no trace of the deception. These Jews led a relatively privileged existence in the camp with somewhat improved conditions, because the Nazis so valued their expertise and were so desperate to see this project bear fruit, at a time when the Reich was suffering irreversible losses and when their only formidable successes were in the wholesale murder of Jews.
Besides the superb acting (and winning the best foreign film Oscar by lead Karl Markovics), this profound drama forces the viewer to ponder deeper moral questions that possibly have no clear answers. Does one sabotage the project to stop the Nazis, knowing that discovery will bring punishment, torture and death to the group of workers? Does one toil at the Nazis’ behest knowing that it will enhance the enemy’s chances of winning the War? What is a hero? What is sacrifice? What is the extent of personal and public responsibility? What does it mean to survive at all costs? Is morality relative or absolute?
At the end of the movie, there are fascinating interviews: Adolf Burger, the forger and survivor who exposed the counterfeit project to the world many years later, reacting when he saw Holocaust deniers and revisionists legitimized; as well as with screenwriter and director Stefan Ruzowitzky, who says his prime motive was not to make a movie that was a history lesson, but rather “a good movie raising universal moral questions.” Does this “universalist” attitude possibly trivialize and minimize the genocide and suffering of the Jewish Nation, victimized simply because they were born Jewish, irrespective of their age, gender, level of religious observance, profession, economic standing or level of righteousness? Does it lessen the impact of the Holocaust as a primarily Jewish tragedy?
Make no mistake: director Stefan Ruzowitzky’s admission that most important for him was to make a “good movie” also means he understands that people want to identify with the characters that are portrayed within a film. He says that it is simply impossible for a normal human being to relate to a concentration camp inmate. It was so ghastly and inhuman that we can’t imagine what it would be like or how we’d feel or react. For that reason, Ruzowitzy contends that he could have never made a film about the general “normal” prisoner population in a concentration camp, but rather focused on the “privileged” forgers’ barracks because we can better imagine the circumstances. He says, “What would I do if I was in such a privileged situation? If I had something to eat… and everything was …fine under these (improved) circumstances, but knowing that behind this wooden fence, there’s hell, there are people killed, my friends, my families are tortured to death. I think this is a sort of universal moral question we can relate to, especially us who are living in a wealthy society, but we all know there are many people starving to death at the other end of the world. How do we react to that morally? Is it enough to make a donation once in awhile, or are we allowed to enjoy our wealth, knowing that so many people do not have enough to eat?”
Viewing the film, I can say that there is no doubt that “The Counterfeiters'” focus and sympathies are about Jewish victims, and the “universalist” questions it provokes enhance, rather than detract from, the film’s emotionally shattering impact.
If you watch this movie, you will not be up all night because of nightmarish scenes. Rather, you won’t be able to sleep because you will be thinking – – really thinking.