Sunday, March 9, 2008

The Counterfeiters

I have another movie to recommend--this one in current theatrical release: The Counterfeiters. Set in the German concentration camps during World War II, the based-on-fact story concerns the Nazis' attempt to scuttle the Allies' economic standing by flooding the global economy with counterfeit pounds sterling and American dollars. To that end, they assembled a team of the most skillful Jewish artisans and put them to work in a privileged quarter of the Sachsenhausen camp, under the leadership of one Salomon Sorowitsch (Sally), portrayed here with intense conviction by Karl Markovics.

Under the constant threat of death and at the dubious mercy of their Nazi overseers, they managed to produce several denominations of English banknotes that were declared genuine even by experts at the Bank of England. Put back to work on the production of the American dollar, the team's efforts were delayed by a single recalcitrant fellow-prisoner whose conscience balked at the idea that their work risked helping the Germans win the war. As the war's end approached, the threat became more imminent: produce, or die. One of the many great, irresolvable moral questions at the heart of the movie was whether to betray one of their own--whose choice was inarguably the right one, from the idealistic point of view--and save themselves; or whether to tacitly go along with his sabotage at the certain cost of their own lives.

What gives the movie its edge, I think, is the constant imminence of death. The barbarous brutality of the German guards and their bland, unquestioning assumption that their charges are subhuman, scheming Jews unworthy of anything but contempt reinforces this sense of imminence: as we see at several dreadful moments in the course of the film, it means nothing to their keepers to exterminate those they consider to be vermin. Knowing this, the Jews are forced into cowering servility, simply to stay alive. As viewers, we cringe for them and are sickened by the treatment they receive.

And yet, compared with others just beyond the fence that separates them from the main camp, they realize that they live in relative luxury. They are fed, clothed, have a thin mattress and a blanket on their beds, have running water, showers... All of which become a source of greater guilt that comfort. In a wrenching scene at the end of the film, when the guards have fled in the face of the oncoming Russian army, they are confronted with enraged survivors from beyond the fence, and survive the fury of those less fortunate by displaying the tattooed numbers on their arms.

Central to the movie is the transformation of the main character, Sally. We see him first after the war, in Monte Carlo, with a suitcase full of the results of his wartime productivity, bent on the cynical exploitation of the tragedy he has been forced to endure. An expert gambler as well as a world-class forger, he starts to rake in money at the gaming tables. A hotel room tryst with a courtesan who draws attention to his tattoo, however, shocks him into a recognition of his rage-driven cynicism, and the final scenes show him furiously frittering away the fortune he has (literally) created, and retreating to the solitude of the shore-line to contemplate his life. The final shows him in a tango on the pebbled beach with the woman who has showed him the way, unwittingly, to his redemption.

A powerful and gripping movie, then--and one which fully earns its Oscar as last year's Best Foreign Film.

1 comment:

katia said...

Peter--thank you so much for your lovely comment on my blog.
Can I ask how you found me?

I've been hanging out with the homeless street youth in Seattle for a couple of years now and they are truly my family, my children.
I feel honored to be their street mom and equally honored to be able to share their beauty and their plight.
As I said in my last post - they are truly some of the best teachers I have. Their displays of nonattachment and being Present go a long way in aiding my own practice of these invaluable traits.

Thanks so much for your kind visit.