Looking into horrorThe Counterfeiters
is a film all about suffering and guilt. Its central character is one of those people caught up in the terrors of the twentieth century- having lost his family in the awful aftermath of the Russian Revolution, he himself is caught up in the terrors of Hitler's dictatorship. Salomon Sorowitsch was a counterfeiter of bank notes in the 1930s in Berlin, we see him operating in a club which reminds one of the great cultural landscape of Weimer Germany and also of its tensions (one of his customers on learning that Sally stands for Salomon turns away in disgust at meeting a Jew). Having been arrested, he is taken to the camps as a criminal and forced into a harsh, horrible environment- into which he is joined by his fellow Jews gradually, as the screws of the final solution were turned up and up. Sorowitsch manages to make the whole experience less terrible by catering to the vanity of his commanders, painting their pictures and sketching them to be noble Aryan warriors. Escaping the Holocaust by prostituting his talents.
The focus of the film though lies not so much in those events- Sorowitsch and others with the requisite skills are taken out of the camps and sent to a special unit. Sorowitsch as a counterfeiter is taken to this unit and put in charge of counterfeiting the pound. Alongside him are bankers, printers and photographers, all at work inside the camp but with better conditions than the normal prisoners. They sleep on comfortable beds, they have a ping pong table to play games on, they get weekends off and receive cigarrettes from the guards as a reward for their acheivements. Of course, as they realise the notes that they are forging will go to support the Nazi war effort and undermine those who seek to rescue them from what is still an undignified and horrible situation. You realise that when a German soldier pisses down Sorowitsch's neck and also when a Jew with TB is just shot without ceremony. The indignity of bankers working alongside counterfeiters, both for those that want to kill them, is captured with wonderful acuteness. They know as well that as soon as their work is finished they will be killed, the better to conceal the operation and also as part of the final solution that Hitler envisaged for the Jews.
So the dilemma facing Sorowitsch and his comrades is about what to do in those circumstances- save yourself and kill your cause, or kill yourself and save your cause. Throughout the film several of the characters make reference to the fact that their only obligation is to save themselves. From Nazi officers who say that they only served Hitler to save themselves, to the Jews in the camps saying they counterfeit to save themselves- they all repeat this nostrum as much as they find it difficult to beleive it. Burger one of the Jews keeps making the ideological argument for sabotage- in the end Sorowitsch is forced to sabotage the sabotage in order to save the rest of the Jews from being killed one by one. But that tension remains throughout- Sorowitsch knows that it exists as does everyone of his comrades- they also all can hear the sounds of the normal life in the camp going on outside, the screams, the deaths, the trudge of prisoners being walked until they collapse- all these things remind them of their privilege inside the walls.
The moral dilemma here is a difficult one. Imagining yourself standing where Sorowitsh stood during the war, you don't know how you would have chosen faced with such an agonising hell on the other side of the wall- a hell to which you could easily return. Though equally at the end of the film, when confronted by the prisoners from outside, what can those inside the cushioned world of the forgers say to the gaunt figures and faces emerging from the actual camp. The prisoners inside the unit are always trapped between these two things- between the horror of what they are going through, and the guilt that they aren't going through more. Karl Markovics captures the essense of Sorowitsch's angst brilliantly- he gets the sense of suavity that enables Sally to survive and also gives him an increasingly haunted melancholy as the film continues. The other characters are varied but all the performances range from the good to the competent- it is Markovics's performance though that is really extraordinary and gives the film life.
There is a nihilism at the bottom of this experience that Sorowitsh goes through- a nihilism that is created by living solely to survive for so many years. Sorowitsh's haunting eyes are after the war emptied of anything- as he goes to casinos trying to lose money and sleep with women that he is sure care nothing for him. The scars of the Holocaust are such that they have destroyed meaning for him, they have made him see beauty as barbaric (as Theodore Adorno said the Holocaust made poetry barbaric)- there is something terrifying about the mechanical nature of Markovics's performance as Sorowitsch after the war compared to his performance as Sorowitsh before the war- the sorrow is reflected in the emptiness of his face in the later scenes replacing the open joy of the earlier scenes. We see this most evidently because of the way that the scenes after the war come directly before in the film the scenes before the war- the director wants us to see how the first Sorowitsch (historically later) developed from the second earlier Sorowitsch.
Guilt, sadness, horror and betrayel- all these emotions are bound up in this film. A film in which the passport out of moral complicity is to assert that one too has suffered greatly- the German commandant tries to tell Sorowitsch that he too has suffered and more plausibly the prisoners in the unit rescue themselves from the wrath of their fellows outside the walls by pointing to their own catalogue numbers from the concentration camps. It is difficult to come to any sense of what you or I might do trapped in that terrible situation- with the screams coming from outside to motivate working for the oppressor. This film offers no easy answers to the moral dilemma embedded within it. It only offers questions but they are questions worth thinking about and pondering over.