J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Academy Award Nominee: The Counterfeiters

The Prisoner’s Dilemma is the classic game theory problem in which the most favorable collective result for prisoners is to cooperate together, but the dominant strategy for each is to cooperate with their jailers, inevitably leading to the least optimal combined result. Austria’s Academy Award nominated best foreign language film, The Counterfeiters (trailer here), can be considered a tragically real historical application of the Prisoner’s Dilemma in a concentration camp setting, which would have wider repercussions on the outcome of WWII.

Counterfeiters dramatizes the historical events surrounding Operation Bernard, considered the largest counterfeiting project ever, organized by the Germans in the waning months of the war as a desperate attempt to undermine the economies of the Allied nations. It relied on the labor and expertise of specially selected Jewish concentration camp prisoners, led by notorious forger Salomon Sorowitch, based on the real-life Salomon Smolianoff.

Sorowitch is a survivor, so he is willing to put his talents to work for his National Socialist captors, to earn a temporary reprieve from the gas chambers and receive relatively improved living conditions in the counterfeiters’ “Golden Cage.” However, at least one colleague refuses ignore the ethical implications of their project. Adolf Burger, a printer mourning his wife murdered at Auschwitz, repeatedly sabotages efforts to forge the American dollar. (Years later Burger would write The Devil’s Workshop, the book on which the film was based.)

Clearly, the counterfeiters were facing a terrible dilemma. If they cooperate, they temporarily prolong their lives and enjoy small privileges, like better rations and unlikely enough, a ping-pong table. Yet, by doing so, they prolong the war and help finance the National Socialist death machine. Of course, if caught sabotaging the operation, they would surely face summary execution.

It is tough moral predicaments like these that might make some viewers uncomfortable. Unlike many Holocaust films, in Counterfeiters much of the horror of the Sachsenhausen camp happens off-screen—literally walled off from the characters in Block 19, and by extension the audience. Of course, the inhumanity and casual cruelty of their captors periodically intrudes into the Golden Cage in some disturbing scenes. In many ways, it is a cold slap-in-the-face of a movie that does not offer easy answers or pat sentimental endings.

At one point, one artist-turned-forger complains to Sorowitch that he cannot find any color in the camp. That is certainly true of director Stefan Ruzowitzky’s production and the washed out look of Benedict Neuenfels’ cinematography as well. However, the use of Marius Ruhland’s melancholy tango themes lends an inspired texture to the film. In many ways, the film is like its protagonist, cerebral but very intense.

Karl Markovics has a real challenge in the coldly analytical Sorowitch, but he makes the character fascinating to watch, as the career criminal develops an increasing sense of responsibility for the men under his charge. The rest of the cast is at least adequate, but it really is Sorowitch’s film.

Counterfeiters is not Life is Beautiful and it is not Schindler’s List. It might actually be closer akin to The Pawnbroker, as a story about the costs of surviving. Counterfeiters is a smart film that is definitely recommended to those who do not require nice, safe formula devices in their cinema. It opens February 22nd in New York.

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