Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Counterfeiters

(Die Fälscher, Austria, Germany, 2007)

Best Foreign Language Film, 2008. Another based-on-fact WWII movie. Seems like we’ve been seeing a lot of them lately. This one takes place in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where a band of Jews with certain skills have been assembled to forge documents and currency for the SS. They are “pampered,” by camp standards, with sufficient food, comfy beds with sheets, and even a ping-pong table. But all this luxury will go away if they fail to produce, first, the British pound, and next, the American dollar. They succeed with the pound, fooling even the Bank of England. The dollar is harder, and they are stymied by one of their number, Burger, a communist who keeps sabotaging their work by not doing one of the important steps that, apparently, only he is skilled enough to do. He maintains—rightly—that doing this work will help the Nazi war effort (the idea is to ruin the Allied economies with floods of phony bills, and to the use the bogus cash to buy more arms), and furthermore, it will even contribute to the killing of more Jews. This seems to me a more dubious proposition, as the Nazis are planning to kill all the Jews, anyway, and by this time the inmates know this. The head of the project, Salomon (Sally) just wants to survive, though he is not untroubled by Burger’s argument. An old con, Sally can’t do anything about it because “You don’t turn in another con. Ever.” So all the inmates are threatened by the moral scruples of one man.

Naturally, you’ll ask yourself what you would do. I find that I have little of the martyr in me. And though I can respect someone willing to die for his principles, I’m not a big fan of martyrs who are willing to take other people with them. There is a harsh arithmetic at work here. Those who survived the camps had only one thing going for them: Luck, and buckets of it. Lucky to be born a large man who could do slave labor rather than a small woman with children, who would be shuffled off to the gas chambers as soon as they left the box cars. Lucky to be skilled at the violin and thus be assigned to the orchestra at Theresienstadt, the “showplace” camp where Nazis brought the Red Cross. Or lucky enough to have a skill the Nazis wanted. Unquestionably their work helped the Nazi war effort … but so did that of the other slave laborers, not just Jews. The choice was simple: Work, or die. I’m afraid I’d look at it like this: When this war is over, some Jews will survive, and I intend to be one of them, or die trying. Nothing I do here in this hell on Earth will save the life of a single Jew. Standing my moral ground is rather meaningless when the least resistance will be met with a bullet in the head. And no one is indispensable. If Burger had been killed, they would have found somebody else to take his place, and the work would have gone on.

You may differ with me. And there is a lot to be said for the argument that the luckiest ones were those who went straight from the trains to the ovens.