Last year at Telluride, The Lives of Others was one of the most talked about films at the fest (that film, as you may recall, went on to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Film and ended up on a lot of "top ten" lists after it's Telluride premiere). This year another film, The Counterfeiters (Austria's nominee for the Best Foreign Oscar) is being buzzed about as this year's "The Lives of Others" -- and not just because they share a common heritage. The Lives of Others was set in East Berlin before the fall of the wall; The Counterfeiters is set in a concentration camp, but both films deal with issues of morality and courage, and how we as human beings choose to treat one another.
In introducing The Counterfeiters, Annette Insdorf noted that there seems to be an endless supply of stories about the Holocaust, all of them true, all of them stories that really happened to the men, women and children who lived through concentration camps or died there. She said that when she first wrote her book back in the late 1970s about the Holocaust in films, only a handful had been made; more recently, when she updated the book, she had to add over 300 -- and the films keep coming, each of them with unique stories that need to be heard.
The Counterfeiters, directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky, is based on true events, and revolves around a massive German counterfeiting operation run out of a concentration camp. The screenplay was adapted from the book Des Teufels Werkstatt, by Adolph Burger, one of the Jewish prisoners forced to create counterfeit Bank of England notes so the Germans could flood the British economy. The film focuses on the moral conflict between Burger (August Diehl), a former printer who believes the prisoners should sabotage the counterfeiting effort so as not to support the German war machine that is murdering so many of their fellow Jews, and Salomon (Karl Markovics), aka Sally, a professional counterfeiter, who mostly just cares about finally being able to reproduce the American dollar accurately and staying alive. The Jewish men who have been relegated to working on "Operation Bernhard" are given luxurious (well, by concentration camp standards, anyhow) accomodations, are fed well, and are rarely shot, and they'd like to keep it that way. Alone among them, Burger seeks to tangibly strike back at the Nazis, even at the risk of being shot. Sally, on the other hand, is a practical man and sees in Operation Bernhard the opportunity to stay alive. When Sally arrives at the camp, he renews his acquaintance with Friedrich Herzog ( Devid Striesow), the SS officer who arrested him for counterfeiting.
Herzog is a self-serving man, and is happy to work with the "King of Counterfeiters" on this highly important counterfeiting project -- a top-secret affair on which much of the hopes of the Nazi war effort are riding. Herzog takes a managerial approach towards running Operation Bernhard and prides himself on generally getting things done through motivation and rewards rather than threats and guns.
The counterfeiting is just the surface of this film, though. At its core, this is a film about courage and morality. All the characters have to make moral choices -- life and death choices -- in the film. Sally has to choose whether to fight solely for himself, or to risk his own life in support of the others. Herzog chooses to publicly support whatever cause is in power at the moment in order to protect and provide for his family, even if that means killing innocent people and being a part of a Nazi machine he only vaguely believes in. Burger would rather be a martyr and die fighting the Nazis than cave in and support them to just to survive.
The real horror of the Holocaust, of course, is how many people made moral choices during that time than enabled the Nazis to remain in power for so long; if you look away when someone is doing a bad thing, are you just as culpable for the end result as if you'd done it yourself?The