Wednesday, January 30, 2008


Cast: Karl Markovics, August Diehl, Devid Striesrow, August Zirner
Director: Stefan Ruzowitzky
Country: Austria/Germany
Rating: ***1/2
Runtime: 98 min.
Genre: Drama, History

You know what? The predictability of these Holocaust films is getting to me a bit. How many times do we have to see the evil SS officer laughing and snorting and beating and shooting the innocent lamb masquerading as a Jewish inmate before it is realized that, well, we’ve got the point. Can we move ahead please, if the weight of that guilt has lightened a bit?
Die Fälscher (The Counterfeiters) might not be just another of those films solely because it is based on an historical event that is itself distinguishable, and the film itself manages to do somewhat of a justice to it. One of the more remarkable historical accounts I have read in recent times, about one of the more remarkable footnotes in history, is Lawrence Malkin’s Krueger’s Men which details one of the most audacious wartime plans ever – Operation Bernhard. A little known SS officer then, Major Bernhard Kruger, helmed an operation to bring down the British financial system, and by that the world financial system. As the book says – The pound’s the pound, the world’s around. How did they try to bring it down – by producing scores of counterfeit money. And in a twist as only life can offer, Bernhard’s search for the world’s best counterfeiters ended in a Nazi concentration camp. These men were shifted to Sachsenhausen camp where they were given the comfort of food, and the luxury of cushion and privilege of a weekly bath. For six years these men produced probably the best counterfeit ever, so much so that the Bank of England itself took them for real ones. The operation moved its tentacles towards the Dollar, but in an incredible development, the counterfeiters decide to sabotage it to save their own lives.
Die Fälscher is based on the accounts of Adolf Burger, one of those forgers down there. His account The Devil’s Workshop was published somewhere in the 1970s, and when a few years ago it caught the eye of two German producers, they decided to make a film about it. It tells the story of a master forger Salomon Sorowitsch (Markovics) whose allegiance is to none but himself, and ends up here, at the heart of the operation.
A great part of the film accounts the conflict between Burger and Sorowitsch, the former wanting to sabotage the dollar for the sake of the world, and the latter wanting to save his skin. What amazes me though is the way the film portrays Burger’s nobility, and his dogged revolutionary endeavor, against the wishes of his fellow inmates, putting himself to risk from all quarters, to delay the dollar. And all of that time, it feels, we’re against him too. The film, with remarkable intelligence, seems to be building its own novel moral viewpoint to the episode breaking away from the traditional ‘Nazis must be opposed at all costs’. All the while we want those inmates to outlive the war, and we almost wish somebody go out and rat out against Burger, for their sake. They never manage to do that, but all of that is shaken when, at the climax, the wall to the outside world is broken, and we for the first time in the film see the Holocaust victims. And we see the tears flowing down Burger’s eyes, and we realize the big picture.
Yet, the moral standpoint only seems. What the film actually manages is quite cleverly, and with only a few sequences quite early in the film, show us the context. With few sequences I refer to the traditional Holocaust film that aspires to horrify us with countless sequences showing novel ways of cruel death. And with context I mean, the big picture i.e. Holocaust. It does try and pretend that it has owes no obligation to the tragedy, and it intends to shrug it off. The entire moral charade happens in close quarters, and with quite judicious usage of hand-held camera (by that I don’t mean shaky) and close range shots, we feel we’re there. Within those walls, hidden by those painted windows, from the horrors of the outside world. We hear gunfire but we never see. And in that, the film creates a world, with its own set of rules to be followed and own set of moral conducts. But as I said it is only a charade, and one hell of a one for it makes us believe all of that, up until the final sequence when we realize the film was ‘right’ after all.
One of the great characters in movie history is Sir Alec Guinness’ Colonel Nicholson from The Bridge on the River Kwai. I often wonder about him, the way he strives for perfection to build the bridge, to prove the British might. The very same bridge that would benefit the Japanese no end, and help in the transport of munitions to kill his British brothers. The film is a great moral conundrum, and Die Fälscher had all the opportunity in the world to engulf us in one. Creation is a great feeling, you know, often taking precedence over anything and that includes boundaries. Forgery is an art too, and the film could have dwelled deeper into it and into its beauty. It could have striven for inspiring awe out of us, to increase the dilemma about what is correct and what is wrong. Something brave and novel. Instead the film just uses it as a plot point to make yet another anti-holocaust anti-Nazi statement.

Markovics is the one performance that stands out to be applauded. His is a character not seeking adherence to right or wrong but to one’s skin. He doesn’t transform over the course of the film, but stays that way and sways towards the good, within the purview of his morality. He looks through those beaten eyes, but they are never tired, always looking for the next opportunity to the way out. It might seem that lady luck is riding on him, but I guess it is more a case of fortune favors the brave. He came across to me as an Itzhak Stern, driven by himself.
The Holocaust has had the single most effect on our collective conscience as any historical event, and any film that deals with it out rightly achieves for political correctness. It models itself in a way according to the tragedy. When the music behind plays the tango, we trust it and its judgment, and believe that it isn’t clouded. The feeling continues when the colors in the pallet paint a rather ironic mixture of bright and pastel. But when pastel turns all pale, gradually, in the classic winter-Holocaust-WWII style (hell, even the opening shot of X-Men had it) I felt a bit let down. Not that there’s much option, but what stops the filmmakers from shrugging the bleakness, inspired by historical events, of their tale. When the collective guilt starts taking toll on a film, I hate that.

1 comment:

Lawrence Malkin said...

Dear Blogger: Thank you very much for your kind words about my book, "Krueger's Men." It caught the producers' eye first, and they approached me long before they turned to Herr Burger. I declinedc to cooperate because it was evident that they planned to make a film like this, the thesis of which is unsupported by events. One cannot confront the past by falsifying it, although Herr Marcovics' performance is realistic and brilliantly understated. You may find out more -- including a look at many of the original secret documents -- on my website
Greetings to you in beautiful Pune, which I have not visited since I visited to do a story for Time Magazine on Sri Baghwan Rajneesh, long since departed to the spirit world.
Kindest regards,
Lawrence Malkin