We start our continental cinema tour with The Counterfeiters, a film from one of the powerhouses of football, sausages and that other little-known, little-explored and non-eventful historical subject. Though the tendency to make war not love is something left in Germany’s past – not something we can say with such a clear conscience about our British selves and American cousins – their films have always embraced these events and refused to forget them.
Many countries have created memorable flicks about the terrible events of battle; whichever conflict comes to mind will doubtlessly have been covered plenty, but the Germans bring something rather exceptional to the equation. Not wanting to dwell on the sins of the past or pretend that any one nation is any more bloodthirsty or blameworthy than any other, we’ll move on rather than speculate too much about what that missing ingredient is exactly. But whether the x-factor comes from guilt, experience, knowledge or something else isn’t so much the question, but rather whether The Counterfeiters lives up to its Germanic battleground brothers.
Downfall, from 2004, is perhaps the most obvious comparison here; the story of Hitler’s last days is familiar with most despite its foreign-language status. But The Wave, The Lives of Others and The Experiment also all have strong links here in the form of conformity and loyalty to a cause, and all of which were released in the 21st century. The Counterfeiters came along in 2007 – a year after The Lives of Others and a year before The Wave – and it looks at a particular aspect of WWII which is not as unique to the others.
The activities take us through a select group of Jews, branded as criminals, who are moved out of Auschwitz into a seemingly more lenient concentration camp masquerading as a prison. Though much of the first half of the film gives us no clear indication as to where it might be going in terms of theme or plot, the counterfeiting side soon becomes apparent and we as an audience realise that any chance of survival is reliant on these persecuted people helping the Nazis in a roundabout way.
And this Catch-22-like situation is where the themes and central question of The Counterfeiters digs in its heels and provides something deeper than most in terms of its philosophical ponderings. Not only does the main issue become one of “selfish” survival versus “accommodating” martyrdom and the struggle that individuals and groups find between balancing these two conflicting desires, but also the relationship of the focal characters is equally provoking.
The counterfeiters, led by one man known as Solomon who is our protagonist and the leader/most skilled of the group, are placed in the unenviable state of affairs whereby non-compliance virtually guarantees death, whereas the opposite helps and supports the Nazi war effort against the Allied forces. Once this dilemma has been established, it never lets up. The viewer isn’t given an easier route out of the problem than any of the characters which is only right given the difficulty of what’s seen to be right morally, practically and whether these judgements are applicable at all.
What’s noticeable is that perhaps the most sympathetic position in terms of long-term thinking, morality and particularly retrospective viewing – which is the default position of anyone watching this – is taken up by the film’s second-in-command. The protagonist who we travel through the film alongside is Solomon, but it’s the idealist Burger that makes an impact on those watching given what we know now; the most important fact being how the war eventually ended. Solomon’s talents mark him as the automatic leader due to his power, and this internal struggle between he and Burger adds an extra element of discomfort.
Solomon is perhaps an antihero of sorts when we begin to wonder where his loyalties really lay: the question posed by Burger is whether his loyalty is to his people, his life or his mission. Solomon’s commitment to proving that he can adequately forge the dollar to a believable standard appears to take control as a form of subtle obsession, although these boundaries are never clarified and, as such, he remains a more interesting character for it.
The final character of the piece, perhaps the most divisive – not only for an audience but within himself – is the commanding SS officer who admits to being a communist in the past. His routine evokes thoughts of Inglourious Basterds’ Hans Landa, although he preceded him on the silver screen by a year. However if these intricacies of character provide depth and allow the audience moments to breathe, then they are counteracted strongly with flashes of violence and bursts of revulsion that appear in various forms.
Like many prison movies, it captures the essence of claustrophobia and confinement of captivity with low ceilings, small rooms and tight spaces which is an attempt to replicate the conditions as much as possible, and for the viewer to on some level feel and respond to these emotionally. Some of the lines and ideas throughout The Counterfeiters, as well as the character complexity and difficult of viewing, add to the experience vastly. It results in the film being worthy of standing alongside its contemporaries in German cinema as an insight into the history, and accompanying perils, of war.