Since the film Die Fälscher, the Counterfeiters (dir. Stephen Rutowitsky), involves Jews, concentration camps, and Nazi Germany, it is difficult to recognize both its excellences and its failings. It is almost as though any story couched within the context of that time period, especially one based on an autobiographical account, is beyond reproach. Yet, I question if the film deserved to win Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards.
The film follows Salomon “Sally” Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics), a Jewish master forger, who is put in charge of the Nazi operation to counterfeit the British pound and the American dollar at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Although given preferential treatment in comparison with the other Jews of the camp, Sorowitsch and his team are dispensible. Protecting the lives of his team, especially young Russian Kolya who has tuberculousis, becomes Sally’s focus. However, one of the printers, the idealistic Adolf Burger (August Diehl), sabotauges the production of the dollar because the operation sustains the Nazi war efforts.
Everything about the film’s production, acting, and pace is beyond reproach. Markovics plays Sally with the unreadable face of a man whose criminality requires a dose of anonymitiy and a hunger for survival, a perfect match against the obvious resolution of Diehl’s Burger. But Sally is by no means a flat character and his own surival is one of several competing concerns. His appreciation and admiration for Burger is as evident as his love for being an artist and his taste for women, wine, and gambling.
The problem with this film is that the essence of the story – the transformation of a self-interested man – has been done very well in this context several times over. One need only think of Schindler’s List, in which a businessman changes from profiteer to humanitarian. Other recent films have attempted to move away from the black and white treatment of the Nazis by painting both Nazis and Jews in shades of gray as well, such as Black Book and Bent. The conflict that Sally faces, is it better to preserve one’s “species” or oneself, is one non-criminals faced, as written mastefully in the works of Primo Levi, Eli Weisel, and Viktor Frankl.
I do not mean to denigrate the film – it is an excellent film that proposes difficult questions. I think its weakness is that it purports to answer the questions, rather than leaving them ambiguous. Last year’s Acadamy winner, the Lives of Others, grappled with a similar moral dilemma, and did so in a more satisfying and less certain way. Both films studied a character who came to a gradual realization that “the bigger picture” conflicted with his absolute beliefs (in the Lives of Others, it was a belief in Communism, while Sally’s was “adapt” and survive).