Saturday, March 29, 2008

A Nazi Film Like No Other Grabs You With it's Searing Realism

Movie Review: The Counterfeiters

I have never felt so painfully close to the horrifying brutality suffered by the Jews in Nazi concentration camps, nor so profoundly moved by their will to survive in the face of one of mankind’s most hideous assaults on the dignity of human life. The Counterfeiters, an Austrian-German film directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky, depicts the plight of a group of printers, bankers and artists by trade, given special treatment by a Nazi leader driven to marshal their talents and produce billions of fake pounds with which to flood and decimate the British economy, and then billions of American dollars to fund the crippling Nazi war machine. The Jewish prisoners are cast into a terrible conflict pitting their hunger to survive against the grim reality that, in effect, they are aiding their own oppressor and thus likely funding the death of their own people. We are dragged into a moral quagmire that has been rarely plumbed with such searing realism, the sort of a quagmire that Melville explores in his tale Billy Budd.

At the center of this extraordinary drama is Sally Sorowitsch, played by the actor Karl Markovics, who enjoys a reputation as one of the world’s most accomplished counterfeiters. This liberates him from the deathly showers of Auschwitz and into Operation Bernard, a special counterfeit printing unit. The moral decisions he faces in conflict with Adolf Burger (played by August Diehl), who rails against aiding the enemy even if it means certain death, have no easy answers — not if you are the one upon whom they are visited. Sorowitsch does show tender mercy to a young art student stricken with TB by using his privileged status to extract drugs for the young man, in effect, however, tipping the Nazis off to an ill prisoner in their midst and thus sealing the young man’s fate. The slightest sign of frailty repulses the German eye on its horrific ascent to Aryan purity. Sorowitsch also retards his counterfeiting efforts in order to prolong the result demanded of him by the Nazis.

To describe and do justice to this gripping masterpiece would require the essays that no doubt others will write in years to come. It chilled my blood. And it moved me in ways I have never before been moved. For example, when it becomes clear that the Germans are close to their own end, Hitler to his suicidal exit, overheard we hear the faint comforting murmur of arriving allied aircraft. Never has the sure distant sound of an airplane engine given me such faith in humanity’s goodness nor such gratitude for the heroism and sacrifice of the allied forces during World War II. This is an unflinchingly realistic work of cinematic art that does not attempt to bring thematic closure to the troubling moral issues it raises. It does not have to. Everything we can possible know about the terrible truths that faced these helpless Jewish victims and how they struggled to save their lives in the face of a great moral dilemma is here. And that is all that needs to be here. In the end, I wept unequivocally like I have rarely wept in a movie house. This movie earned my tears.

[photos, from top: Karl Markovics, August Diehl]

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