The Counterfeiters
More Than Survival and Adaptation

“Aye, fight and you may die; run, and you’ll live… at least a while. And dying in your beds, many years from now, would you be willin’ to trade all the days, from this day to that, for one chance, just one chance, to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they’ll never take… OUR FREEDOM!” William Wallace in Braveheart

The Counterfeiters really isn’t a movie like Braveheart, but it is a movie about courage—and, I believe, about life and surviving.

The movie is set in Germany during Hitler’s Third Reich. Salomon Sorowitsch is a man trying to exist as a Jew in Hitler’s hellhole. He begins the film as a self-centered, womanizing counterfeiter who gets caught for his crimes and thrown into one of Germany’s infamous concentration camps. And as anyone could imagine, the conditions are horrible; but they become the context for his motto, “One adapts or one dies.” The movie forces you experience the result of this slogan, and to live the horrific events with the characters, which makes for a powerfully eerie movie.

Stefan Ruzowitzky, director of The Counterfeiters

Early in Sorowitsch’s imprisonment, he is transferred to another prison so that the Nazis can utilize his expertise as a counterfeiter. The prison is run by the man who arrested him, and was since promoted to this position. The cell block the counterfeiters occupy is like a country club for those who are willing to cooperate with the Nazi regime and make counterfeit pounds and dollars to help with the German war effort. The new commandant (Friedrich Herzog) is a businessman more concerned with promotion and comfort than he is with the Nazi war machine, but he needs that machine for his comfort. He also knows he needs Sorowitsch’s expertise and treats him well. Sorowitsch agrees to work with Herzog as long as he can get him medicine to help his ailing friend’s tuberculosis. Herzog complies, only to have the ailing friend later killed because of the chance that TB could spread to the entire camp—which would kill off his plans to further the Nazi efforts, and get him in good with Hitler.

In spite of the fact that death is all around Sorowitsch, he continues to do his work in order to survive—and to help his fellow workers survive. The movie reveals Sorowitsch’s slow redemption from a self-centered egotist to a man that is truly concerned about the people around him. He begins to take the blame for mistakes of others, knowing that the commandant needs him, and would not kill him as he would with the others.

This slow metamorphosis is often confronted by the morally upstanding Adolph Burger, who was imprisoned for protesting the Nazi regime. His wife was also imprisoned and killed—and he refuses to be part of the Nazi war effort, sabotaging the work they are doing on the American dollar. This causes great tension between Burger, Sorowitsch, and the rest of the inmates; but Sorowitsch consistently protects Burger from both the Germans and his own people in spite of the fact that he vehemently disagrees with Burger as to what is best for their people.

This leads to many interesting questions about what our lives are for, and what constitutes survival. Burger is an advocate of force and change, while Sorowitsch is a representation of the status quo trying to survive in a world of confusion. His world is defeated, and change appeares impossible. The only hope is to survive in the midst of the horror. Burger’s view, though, is summed up in his conversation with Sorowitsch when he says, “No one is willing to die for principle; that’s why the Nazi system works!”

Both men have a similar goal. Both men desire to help their fellow men. Both have vastly different methods that clash and cause tension. This is not unlike many of us trying to survive in a world that doesn’t make sense, and feeling hopeless to change it. Do we act out in rage and violence or do we acquiesce and live within it? Or is there another way?

Whatever the solution, this movie does a remarkable job of displaying the human condition. Every character in this movie is tainted. Even the moral Burger struggles to strike a balance in this movie.

This movie is about surviving and adaptation—interestingly, two elements found in Darwin’s theory of evolution, and two elements that can make for a dastardly way of living. This movie depicts surviving as meaningful only when there is a purposed existence in the end. These men resort to their base animal nature when purpose and dignity are taken from them, and then resort back to civility when they are given dignity and a job.

As Braveheart’s William Wallace reminds us, “Every man dies; not every man really lives.” Life is more than existence, and human life is more than the will to survive and adapt. But those are much needed aspects when life has meaning.

In the end, the remaining prisoners are released as the Allies defeat Germany, and Sorowitsch is last seen recklessly gambling thousands of counterfeit dollars—a symbolic throwing away of blood money, which represents his guilt for his complicity in the furthering of the Nazi war machine.

The last scene sees Sorowitsch sitting on a beach in Monte Carlo, a changed man. He’s still a womanizer, but his guilt will haunt him for the decisions he has made—in spite of the fact that many of his decisions saved many people, including himself. As the tagline for the movie says, “It takes a clever man to make money. It takes a genius to survive.”

Survive he did, with a memory that he will take to his grave. What would you do to survive? What would you compromise for comfort?

The Counterfeiters is rated R for “some strong violence, brief sexuality/nudity and language.” This movie would not be appropriate for children. The adult content is a realistic picture of the horror of the human heart when it is left to its own.

Courtesy of a local publicist, Mike attended a press screening of The Counterfeiters.