Click above to visit the entire site
Most of the action in Stefan Ruzowitzky's Die Fälscher takes place at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, north of Berlin, in the months before the end of World War II; but the director, who also adapted the memoir on which the film is based, wisely presumes that his audiences will already be familiar with the more notorious of the monstrous indignities to which the victims of the Nazi death machine were subjected. Sachsenhausen may not have been an extermination camp, but it was a terrible place of outrageously casual murder, and Mr Ruzowitzky neither lets us forget that nor rubs our eyes in it. His story is set in a camp within the camp, a sealed-off area in which the record-holder for counterfeiting operations was conducted. Like the inmates of this special reserve, we are reminded of what goes on in the rest of Sachsenhausen by the unsettling sounds that come over the walls of the compound. Die Fälscher is so well made that these punctuating noises — groans, gunshots, cries for mercy — embody the gruesome circumstances from which his characters have been preserved but into which they might be released at any time. The capriciousness of the Nazi regime is not foregrounded, but the uncertainty of the prisoners' lives colors every frame of the film.
Whether the prisoners live or die, however — most of them are respectable Jews before the war, working in banking or printing or in any field related to the production of paper currency — is not the most urgent matter before us. Dragooned into "Operation Bernhard," a scheme to destabilize the Allied economies by flooding the world with counterfeit pound notes and dollar bills, the lucky band of counterfeiters is effectively working to prolong the Nazi regime, and some of its players are less happy about this than others. Least happy is Adolf Burger, a printer who, with his wife, was incarcerated for printing anti-Nazi material. Mr Burger, played in the film by August Diehl, survived to write the memoir that inspired the movie, and in one sort of picture he would be the unequivocal hero. But not here. Quite aside from being both riveting and astonishingly well-made, and from featuring a terrific ensemble of actors, Die Fälscher is a fascinating demonstration of the way in which film creates a morality that draws very little from the great philosophers. Film makes us root for villains and underdogs by assaulting us with the ineluctable benefit of simply being alive — alive and free. Die Fälscher studies both the nominal freedom that the prisoners have, either to cooperate with the enterprise or to sabotage it, and the virtue of doing whatever it takes to become fully free, or, at least, to survive.
So, all the while that Die Fälscher ostensibly poses the dilemma that a handful of lucky prisoners face, it mounts an extraordinary challenge to the audience. It appears to ask us whose side we would take, Burger's or that of his partner and antagonist, Salomon Sorowitsch. Would we be martyrs or enablers? "Sally" Sorowitsch, played unforgettably by Karl Marcovics, is placed at the center of the film by means of a narrative frame that assures us at the start that he, at least, has made it through the holocaust. Sally may not be as amoral as he pretends, but he is ruthlessly honest about the values that one might have in the absence of any ideals. An unappealing figure, Sally wins us over with a seemingly bottomless zest for staying alive that is both heroic and utterly anti-heroic. It is impossible to pass lasting judgment on so mercurial a figure. Opportunists, the film reminds us, occasionally take the opportunity to do good, and that the fact that it suits them to do good is not easily held against them. Sally is willing to delay the accomplishment of the Germans' objective, but only if he can do so without getting shot. At the same time, he refuses to take action against Burger, even though Burger's heroics threaten the lives of everyone in the camp within the camp.
What Die Fälscher does not explicitly ask us is how we feel about rooting for Sally and his team of counterfeiters, and yet there is not a scene in the picture that does not inspire our identification with them. Even if they're burdened with the staggering shame of having been singled out for survival because of their skills, we want them to rejoice and be glad that they have lived another day. That is how successful movies work. They may raise all the interesting moral questions in the world, but they cannot succeed by making us hope that characters with whom we identify suffer.
We're not even sure that we want Herzog (Devid Striesow), the plump and corrupt Nazi officer who protects the counterfeiters (in order to benefit from their work, of course), to get hurt. That's how far into the dark heart of the movies Stefan Ruzowitzky transports us in this haunting but very effective entertainment.
Copyright (c) 2008 Pourover Press