By Rory Winston
Istvan Szabo’s “Mephisto” (1981) told a Faust-like story about an actor who eventually sells his soul to the Nazi regime: he agrees to entertain the murderers for the price of fame. Soon, he goes from simple opportunism — and just wanting to get by — to becoming an active and inspirational participant for the killing machine. Sadly, such stories are not only metaphors. Though right and wrong may often be hard to distinguish, the Holocaust is a gray zone where the need to survive and overt complicity often become hard to distinguish.
Based on documented accounts, Stefan Ruzowitsksy’s The Counterfeiter (“Die Fälscher,” Austria/Germany, 2007) tells about a Jewish counterfeiter, Salomon Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics) sent to the concentration camp Sachsenhausen. There Sorowitsch is given two choices: help the Nazis make fake sterling and dollars or face being gassed. This same option existed for all the Jews involved in Operation Bernhard – a Nazi plot to make enough fake currency that they could flood the allied markets and bankrupt the enemy forces. And so the Nazis collected Jews from many concentration camps: professional printers, expert graphic artists, and even ex-bank officials. These specialized and select few lived in two barracks separated from the rest of the prisoners. They were better fed, had softer beds and received special privileges that included having toilets.
Like Lina Wertmüller’s classic “The Seven Beauties,” this film wisely chooses a victim that is neither heroic nor especially ethical even before the onset of the Holocaust. In fact, he is a career criminal who says “why make money by making art when you can make money simply by making money?” Nevertheless, we realize that no personal flaws can justify the level of slaughter of which the Nazis are capable. And, in the end, he is no different than the best of those who survived: they all had to make compromises that would under other conditions have appeared morally repugnant. As Primo Levi wrote in “If This Is a Man,” when faced with death and suffering months of starvation and imprisonment, people will eat their bread even while the dying cries of their brethren are heard a door away.
Likewise the Nazi in charge of this work detail, Friedrich Herzog (Devid Striesow), is neither a sadist nor an unflinching humanitarian. Instead he is a Schindler-like character – a pragmatic businessman who sees no benefit in being cruel to his Jewish slave laborers. Without any particular ideology he empathizes with Sorowisch, saying: “I was once a communist before I was a Nazi … mostly, I am a man like you … doing what is necessary under the given conditions … just doing my job.”
Aside from one inmate, few risk sabotage. As for most of the Nazi thugs, their logic is like that of most racists. They force minorities into doing their dirty deeds while at the same time rebuking them for possessing such natural inclinations. After forcing Jews at gunpoint to carry out counterfeiting, they make disgusted comments such as, “You’re Jewish, you know how to do this illegal work.” In one of the most grotesque moments we see a Nazi officer pee on a Jew. Not only does he feel no remorse or shame for his own behavior, but he goes one step further; he disgustedly rebukes the Jew with, “Look how desperate you are to stay alive.”
In the end, of course, “The Counterfeiter” shows that all human beings are capable of sacrificing what — under less fatal conditions — they would have considered the essence of their humanity. In a sense, humane behavior is a currency that is real under normal conditions but turns counterfeit under cataclysmic times. As the Nobel laureate Imre Kertesz once wrote: Survival in the camps often depended upon becoming a complicit executioner of one’s own soul. To look for any real sense of logic in a concentration camp would be absurd. While self-absorbed people sometimes lived, able bodied men compassionate with their fellow man were often gassed. The same obsequiousness that could win favors one day could be enough to enrage a commandant the next. A seeming advantage could become a fatal disability overnight. All was chance. As one of the inmate jokes stated: “Where is God, now … why is he not here in Auschwitz?” – “He was here but he never made it past the selections.”