For two weeks during the summer, I took a course on American slavery and the Holocaust.  Talk about summer time fun time!  From the start, we sought to avoid “invidious comparisons” between the two events that would eternally debate who suffered more or which event was more horrific.  Instead, we looked at issues of race, power, economics, and evil in an attempt to understand how events like these could happen and how ordinary people could collude with such extraordinarily evil circumstances. The question of how ordinary people could survive such horrific circumstances, though never explicitly raised for discussion, inevitably followed readings about the Middle Passage or any number of Nazi death camps.  To illustrate the lasting psychological damage that these events exacted on their victims, we watched two films, Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker and Jonathan Demme’s Beloved.  Recently, I encountered another, The Counterfeiters.

Directed by Stephan Ruzowitzki and based on Adolf Burger’s book of the same name, The Counterfeiters focuses on a small slice of the Holocaust and World War II, the little-known “Operation Bernhard.”  This was a Nazi attempt to produce counterfeit British pounds and American dollars to strengthen their military machine and to weaken and eventually collapse both economies.  To that end, Nazi officials enlisted Jewish captives renowned for their printing, or forgery, skills to run a print shop in one of the concentration camps.  Their star counterfeiter is Salomon “Sally” Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics).  Truly skilled at his “profession,”  Sally is happy to move from forced manual labor to the comparatively comfortable surroundings of the print shop.  Soon, however, he is confronted with two painful realities:  he is directly helping fund the Nazi war effort while his Jewish counterparts are suffering and dying just outside the print shop’s walls.

I can think of few more difficult events to re-enact and film than the Holocaust.  By focusing on such a small portion of the event, director Ruzowitzki is not forced to try to capture the enormity of the suffering.  However, suffering is ever-present, if not always seen.  For one, we constantly hear the shouts of Nazi soldiers and the screams and pleas of Jewish prisoners.  A single pistol shot, the execution of another Jew, constantly startles both Sally and the viewers.  Ruzowitzki and Burger are up to something different here.  Survival, rather than suffering, is the film’s main focus.  The Counterfeiters is a story of one man’s attempt to survive at any cost, with all the ethical implications that that determination entails.

In our summer school course, one of the professors argued that we like to romanticize a hypothetical past.  Regarding slavery or the Holocaust, we might say, “I would have never done this or that.”  The fact of the matter is that we can never truly know what we would have done.  Rather, a more fruitful approach would be to examine how we participate in oppressive structures today.  I do not believe that this means that we cannot speak ethically regarding Sally’s actions for example.  On the other hand, we cannot be overly judgmental.  Ruzowitzki does a great job of laying out this portion of Sally’s life before us, and Markovics does a great job of portraying a man who will survive at any cost.  Sally is “thankful” to have the “job,” but he does realize that others around him suffer in more physically demanding ways.  Yet in performing his job well, he helps preserve the lives of his counterfeiting co-workers.  His abandonment of the project would quickly lead to greater persecution for those, physically, closest to him.

Ruzowitzki and Burger do not leave us with one response to this dilemma.  Another character, Adolf Burger (August Diehl), simply cannot justify or live with supporting the Nazi effort.  He consistently thwarts the counterfeiting efforts by inserting disruptive irregularities into the production process that result in flawed bills and delays.  Sally must cover up for him to save both of their lives, telling him, “Only by surviving can we defeat them.”  Adolf’s response, if perhaps more courageous, is just as valid as Sally’s and is one that the director follows throughout.  Sally tells Adolf, “Nobody’s prepared to die for a principle.”  To which Adolf responds, “That’s why the Nazi system works.”

Participation and resistance are two broad ways of looking at the responses to the Nazi oppression thus far.  Various forms of escape are others.  One of the counterfeiters kills himself after he sees that the war is over.  The prisoners confined outside the counterfeiting buildings storm in and almost murder the counterfeiters believing they are Nazi workers.  They only step down when they see their number tattoos.  Upon seeing the suicide victim, another counterfeiter exclaims, “I told him he only had to survive until it was over.”  What an unfortunately short-sighted assessment.  Sally and the rest of the survivors will be surviving the Holocaust every day for the rest of their lives.  Perhaps this counterfeiter could not survive the prospect of survival.

The Counterfeiters is shot in grainy footage that gives the film both a gritty, yet “cool” feel.  Ruzowitzki throws in occasional scenes of violence and humiliation to counter this look and to remind us of the horrors of the Holocaust.  The film begins with Sally living it up in a casino in Monte Carlo after his liberation.  This makes a strong contrast to the concentration camps to which Ruzowitzki quickly flashes back.  At the end of the film, Sally sits on a beach with a nameless woman, no doubt reflecting on his experiences.  He has just blown all of his money at the casino, but we know that he can make more.  The woman does not know this, however, and she tries to comfort him:  “You had bad luck.  So much money…so much money.”

The Counterfeiters (98 mins) is available on DVD and is rated R for strong violence, brief nudity and sexuality, and language.