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The Counterfeiters

Thomas Wartenberg finds that extreme circumstances can bring out a person’s true moral character.

Stefan Ruzowitzy’s Academy Award-winning The Counterfeiters (Die Fälscher) focuses on a group of Jewish concentration camp inmates during the Second World War. It fictionalizes the true story of an attempt by the Nazis to counterfeit British pounds and American dollars. Apparently, the Nazis thought that if they could flood the Allies’ economies with millions in counterfeit notes, those economies would flounder, allowing the Nazis an easy victory. With their typical racist logic, the Nazis assumed that the ‘tricky’ Jews were up to the task of such forgery, so they gathered together a group of prisoners who had experience in printing, etching, etc. They were given special privileges – so long as they cooperated and worked hard to reach the Nazi’s goals.

In the film the central figure in this group is Salomon Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics), a master forger, who had been arrested in Paris by Friedrich Herzog (David Striewsow). Herzog finds Sorowitsch and brings him to the camp to head up Himmler’s pet project.

From the outset, moral issues stare these privileged inmates in the face. When Sorowitsch is perplexed by yelling and other noise, one of the inmates who has preceded him to the camp explains that this is the shoe testing team. To punish inmates who have been uncooperative – or perhaps just for their sadistic pleasure – the guards give prisoners shoes that are too small and force them to run endless circles around the camp as they yell at them to keep going. Many of the shoe testers are shot, as the pain becomes too much to endure. How can an inmate living in relative comfort – with plenty to eat, showers, and soft mattresses – accept his privileges in the face of the brutality suffered by other inmates no less deserving than he? Is all that matters to survive, to make it through – thus rebuking the Nazis by showing them that one can survive, despite their best efforts? Should one refuse to accept the privileges the Nazis offer when they are purchased among such brutality? Such questions are merely the opening set of dilemmas facing these inmates.

The central ethical dilemma the inmates face is whether to cooperate with the Nazis in their plan to defeat the Allies by destroying their economies. Most of the inmates think only of saving their own lives, and in justification of their stance point out that if they die, they will just be replaced with others from the vast pool of labor the concentration camps provide. Only Adolf Burger (August Diehl), an activist Communist, asserts that they have an obligation to sabotage the Nazi’s efforts to forge the Allied currencies, for otherwise they will be helping their hated persecutors. Most of the other inmates find Burger’s position completely laughable, but Sorowitsch recognizes the integrity of Burger’s stance, repeatedly intervening to save Burger from his fellow inmates.

At one point, one prisoner, formerly a bourgeois banker, casts aspersion on the counterfeiter Salomon by uttering the phrase, “honor among thieves” with utmost contempt. The banker is disgusted to find himself among a group of people whom he regards as his inferiors because they did not have the social status he had prior to his imprisonment by the Nazis. The irony is that life in the camp reveals the inadequacy of the social and ethical assumptions inherent in the banker’s judgment, through his failure to recognize the integrity and courage those judged inferior by his traditional social norms are capable of exhibiting – often to a far greater degree than those he would naturally regard as having superior morals. The ‘extreme situation’ of the camps compels the inmates to reveal their moral character, by forcing them to discard their protective shells and expose what really matters to them and what they are willing to risk for it.

One of the central claims of Aristotle’s theory of ethics is that certain paradigmatic situations call forth a range of possible responses arrayed around a single issue. One shows one’s moral character by how one responds to such a paradigmatic situation. Within the limited world of this one barrack, we get a microcosm of moral types. Among others are the collaborator Kapo, who is ready to lick the boots of his oppressor even as they kick him; the elitist banker who takes social standing to reflect a person’s inner character, but who is a laughing stock because he expects the Nazis to respect him; the courageous but possibly masochistic political activist, willing to sacrifice his own life in seemingly futile gestures of resistance; and the hardened criminal who reveals himself to have a moral integrity lacking in most of his fellow inmates.

Sorowitsch is the film’s central character and its most interesting from a moral point-of-view. He loses no love on the Nazis, having lost his family to them. However, as the head of the forgery project, the lives of his fellow inmates depends on his ability to succeed in forging the pound and the dollar. He is thus placed in a position of responsibility that takes from him the luxury of being able to make a decision that will affect only himself. His decision to cooperate is a decision to keep his fellows alive.

But his moral dilemmas do not end there, and one of the virtues of The Counterfeiters is its rich depiction of the type of multiple and overlapping moral relationships in which we each find ourselves. Sorowitsch befriends a young artist when they are both brought to the camp, and comes to see him as an ersatz son. When the boy is discovered to have TB, a health threat to all the inmates, Sorowitsch is faced with the dilemma of whether to try to save him. Similarly, Sorowitsch has a respect for Burger’s refusal to collaborate with the Nazis, and keeps some of the other less noble prisoners from killing him when they realize he has been repeatedly sabotaguing their attempts to counterfeit the US dollar.

Since at least Jean Renoir’s amazing anti-war film, Grand Illusion, prison camp inmates have often been shown in film as having a culture that escapes the vigilant eyes of their captors. Renoir was concerned to show that the nations in whose names millions had been sent to their deaths during the First World War did not reflect authentic divisions between human beings. The Counterfeiters uses the setting of a prison camp to make a different point: that the social divisions which predominate in ordinary circumstances do not accurately reflect the moral fiber of individuals. According to the film, the cruel moral cauldron of the concentration camps provide a crucible in which a person’s real moral fiber is exposed. For this reason, this film provides interesting viewing for anyone intrigued by the complexity of human moral responses to the world.

© Thomas Wartenberg 2008

Thomas Wartenberg is the co-editor of Philosophy and Film (Routledge). He teaches philosophy and film studies at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.

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