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March 27, 2008 - Image 63

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2008-03-27

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Art s

Moral Ambiguity

Winner of the best-foreign-language Oscar, Austrian drama about
Jewish forgers who aided the Nazis screens at DFT.

Michael Fox
Special to the Jewish News


he Russian-Jewish "hero" of the gripping war-
time drama The Counterfeiters is a forger, a hus-
tler and a trader on the black market.
Salomon (Sally) Sorowitsch is also a lone wolf with no
family, no Jewish identity and no loyalty to anyone but
himself. He lives by his wits and looks out for No. 1.
In other words, he's not the typical protagonist of a
Holocaust film.
"It makes everything more human in a way, and I think
this is one reason why especially Jewish audiences like the
movie a lot:' says Austrian director Stefan Ruzowitzky. "If
you show Jews only as flawless victims waiting to be mur-
dered, it's difficult to relate to these people.
"The point is that a crook who's pretty unlikable in the
beginning — such a person does not deserve to be killed
in a concentration camp [either]. It's not only about flaw-
less people who shouldn't be there but also the not-so-
good ones!"
The Counterfeiters will be shown at the Detroit Film
Theatre in the Detroit Institute of Arts March 28-30. It
won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film this year;
among its competition was Israel's entry, Beaufort, which
screens at the DFT April 25-27.
The screenplay of Ruzowitzky's riveting morality
tale is based on The Devil's Workshop, a 1970s memoir
in which Adolf Burger, a trained printer, a Jew and an
active member of the Communist anti-Nazi resistance,
relates his experiences as one of a group of Jewish print-
ers and graphic artists the Nazis forced to secretly forge
the British pound note and the U.S. dollar in an effort to
destabilize the global economy.
These honest artisans of "Operation Bernhard" were
made to apply their skills to a criminal activity for the
first time — with the exception of Sally, who had made
his living creating fake documents.
The men who were to carry out this plan were Jewish
prisoners transferred from the death camps and else-
where to a secret barracks in the Sachsenhausen concen-
tration camp, where they were provided with comfort-
able beds and good food. They lived on "Easy Street"
compared to the poor souls interned in the death camp
— just one of the thorny dilemmas posed in the film.
The Counterfeiters film begins immediately after the
end of World War II, with Sally checking into a posh hotel
on the Riviera; it then flashes back to Berlin where his
odyssey begins. It was an instinctive decision, Ruzowitzy
confided during a recent interview.
"The film starts with the ultimate happy ending:' the
director says in fluent English. "After six years in a con-
centration camp, [Sally's] sitting at the beach of the Cote
d'Azur with a beautiful woman and pockets full of money.
Then he starts to ask himself, 'Why me? Do I deserve

August Diehl as Adolf Burger, Karl Markovics as Salomon Sorowitsch, Veit Stiibner as Atze and August Zirner as
Dr. Klinger in The Counterfeiters

this? Did I compromise too much? Did I come too close to
evil?' And this is what the movie is about:'
Although The Counterfeiters is full of suspense, we
know from the outset that Sally survives. Instead of wor-
rying whether he'll live or not, the viewer is free to partic-
ipate in the choices Sally makes — and to weigh the cost.
The 46-year-old Ruzowitzky did an extraordinary
amount of research for his sixth film, and his commit-
ment is evident in every frame.
"Being Austrian and having been raised in Germany
— and having grandparents who were Nazi sympathizers
— I always felt the urge to make a statement as a film-
maker," he confides. "The idea was to make a movie for
my generation and even younger people, and that means
for people who don't have any guilt.
"It's no longer about saying, T accuse — I accuse you:
because those who were involved in the crimes are dead;
they aren't around anymore. It's rather about inviting
these new generations to be interested in these issues:"
At the same time, Ruzowitzky acknowledges the sen-
sitivity required to make a film about the Holocaust.
After reading every memoir he could find, he feels he was
granted a kind of permission.
"[In] all these autobiographies, it's almost like a cliche
that whenever the author is about to die, about to give up,
there's always the thought, `I have to go on because I need
to tell that story: It's such an important thing for all these
"So I feel if we respect them, it means that we have to

go on telling these stories about the Holocaust. I think it's
allowed to make action movies, adventure stories, moral-
ity plays, comedies, whatever. Of course, there's some
responsibility involved, but basically this is allowed if you
tell the right story, making the right points."
Adolf Burger, now 90 and living in Prague, was a script
consultant and frequent visitor to the set. But he felt that,
unlike his book, it wasn't important that he be the center
of the film's narrative (other than Burger, characters in
the film have fictionalized names and many are compos-
In the end, the result of the contrast between the
more idealistic Burger and the more cynical Sorowitsch
makes The Counterfeiters more morally complex than
most Holocaust dramas. (A 2006 historically researched
chronicle of the Nazi counterfeit plot, Krueger's Men by
Lawrence Malkin, has just been released in paperback by
Little Brown and Company/Back Bay Books.)
Still going strong, Burger continues to tell his story. You
might have spotted him in the audience at the Academy
Awards, sitting with Stefan Ruzowitzky.

The Counterfeiters screens 7 p.m. Friday, Saturday
and Sunday, March 28-30, at Detroit Film Theatre
in the DIA. Another Holocaust-related film, Steal
A Pencil for Me, was previewed in last week's JN
and runs 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 9:30 p.m. Friday and
Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday, March 27-30. $6.50-
$7.50. (313) 833-4005 or www.tickets.dia.org .

March 27 • 2008


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