FILM FORTNIGHT: The Counterfeiters

Very few people I know have heard of this film, not that I’m terribly surprised; it takes something pretty special for any foreign language film (the film is Austrian, so spoken in German) to make it big in the somewhat saturated UK film market, and we are hardly short of films about Nazism in any language. Still, that’s no reason to malign it straight off the bat, and I managed well enough with just the subtitles.

The film’s story covers yet another of the ‘hidden tales’ of the Second World War; some small aspect of the war plan of either side that was in its own way, big or small, somehow critical to the war’s outcome. It is a constant source of amazement to me that we don’t run out of these stories at some point, since there were only so many people in Europe at the time to have an Amazing True Story happen to them, but happen they clearly did. This particular story concerns a wing of the concentration camp at Sachsenhausen, where tens of thousands of Jews and political enemies of the Nazi state died during the war, either by being worked to death or systematically exterminated; many others were transferred to Auschwitz to be killed. However, even in Germany at the time there was some dissidence to the state’s fanatical Jew-hating; the Jews were a successful sect of German society, with many skilled doctors, engineers, bankers and such among them, and it was a truth that (understandably) went unsaid that by locking up, driving away and killing all these people the Third Reich was hamstringing itself. Apparently, even the high-ups recognised the potential usefulness of some of these people, and here our film takes up the story; our main protagonist is career forger Salomon Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics), arrested for… well… being a career forger, as well as a Jew. However, his talents soon make themselves known and he is moved to Sachsenhausen along with as many other prisoners the Nazis can find with skills related to artwork, printing or forgery. Their task? Come up with a facility for the mass-production of dud British and American banknotes, with the aim to flood the market with them and thus destabilise the Allied economy through hyperinflation. Some might call this a slightly eccentric strategy, but after hyperinflation had totally annihilated the German economy in the early 1930s (paving the way for the Nazis’ rise to power in 1933) the Germans knew all too well how devastating this had the potential to be.

However, this complex historical context is all so much background noise, for the real meat of the film concerns our characters. Every one is representative of the complex mess of moral ambiguity and contradiction that the prisoners find themselves in; Sorowitsch is something of a cynical moneymaker, but finds himself in the role of leader and spokesperson for the band of forgers, and whether his priorities lie with his own survival or empathy for them becomes an increasingly grey area as the film progresses. Then there is the question of the act of collaboration; some are quite clearly happy to do whatever the Nazis want if it means they can stay alive, but others are quite plainly disgusted at the idea of working for those who would quite happily have seen them dead. This moral standpoint is personified by the character of Adolf Burger (August Diehl), whose memoirs the film is based upon; not only does he vehemently hate the Nazis and does everything he can to fight back against them, but his every action is indicative of his moral repulsion against their situation. Because of the importance of their work, the forgers live a relatively well-off existence, with decent clothes, good living conditions and sufficient food. By contrast, the life of a less lucky prisoner was horrific; fed on scraps when they were fed at all (there are several accounts of prisoners starving to death as concentration camps and factories argued over whose job it was to feed them), they were subjected to backbreaking labour and near-constant systematic abuse from their guards. The death rate was correspondingly horrific. This gulf in quality of life between them and their fellow prisoners, never seen until the very end of the film to provide a stark, brutal contrast, is of personal significance to Burger (his wife is imprisoned elsewhere), and whilst his comrades dress themselves in the clothes of the dead, he remains clad in prison wear, a constant and undoubtedly effective visual reminder of the moral mess the film finds itself in.

This moral quagmire is, really, the film’s underlying theme, the question of what is right versus what will keep you alive ever-present. Other films have addressed this message, but the setting of this one makes it especially poignant; across the vast expanse of German-controlled Europe, countless of ordinary people really did collaborate with the Nazi occupiers, and the shame associated with this act still lingers today. In some cases, collaborators may have believed in the Nazi ideals, but doubtless most were simply trying to make life a little less hard in whatever way they could. Was what they did right? What is worth sacrificing, worth accepting, in order to stay alive? Far better philosophers than me have pondered that question and failed to come to an answer.

However, for me the crowning moral contradiction of the lot comes in the form of the prisoner’s Nazi controller, Herzog (Devid Streisow; in real life the operation was headed by a man named Bernhard Kruger). A softly-spoken family man who is proud to say that he never beats his children, it is Herzog who is responsible for the prisoners’ comfortable existence; and an undoubtedly ruthless Nazi who threatens to start shooting prisoners if anyone conspires to sabotage the operation (adding another layer of moral quandary to Burger’s sabotage attempts). In more ways than one, Herzog is symbolic of the strange quirks of moral reasoning of the Nazi party as a whole; a political party who, whilst happy to gas millions upon millions of Jews for no good reason, had very strong objections to hunting, cruelty to animals and smoking (they were the first to show that smoking is unhealthy, although nobody took them seriously at the time). Herzog is a metaphor for the system he represents, just as the film is a metaphor for a thousand stories of small-time collaborators across the continent.

The Counterfeiters is most certainly not a perfect film. Whilst it is grim, gritty, realistic and deals with some genuinely meaningful subject matter, director Stefan Ruzowitsky doesn’t seem able to differentiate between the gravity of different scenes, making those that should have packed a powerful punch seem rather tired and listless. Whilst not taxing for the brain, it is rather hard to enjoy for this reason, and whilst the moral ambiguity of the characters gives them purpose it is not done in such a way as to make them seem sympathetic and likeable. No, I cannot definitely say that I enjoyed The Counterfeiters, but I respect the hell out of it for telling a story that tries to mean something, and for having the guts to be unconventional.

PS: Reading around some of the source material for this film, I came across the story of Bernhard Kruger, the real-life version of Herzog. His story and the story in the film do not apparently synch up (even Adolf Burger is on record as saying that the film does not portray events as they really happened), and he was apparently just as much of a murderer as the likes of Rudolf Hoess (the commandant of Auschwitz); according to Burger, he murdered six ill prisoners in the final days of the war to prevent them from talking when they went to hospital. However, his story becomes interesting when he was put on trial for war crimes; several former members of his unit apparently gave evidence of his good treatment of them during the war, and he was acquitted; because this film didn’t have quite enough moral ambiguity on its own…

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The Great Mr Adams

As one or two of you may be aware, my very first post on this blog extolled the virtues of one man- a certain Dr M von Vogelhausen of Amazon, internet, and his truly legendary reviews. He’s still a legend, check  his stuff out. However, since then I haven’t done a one-man profile again, but today that is about to change, as I review a man once described as ‘a possible fragment of the humour singularity’. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Mr Douglas Adams.

Now, I am quite aware that Adams, being a bestselling novelist and general public figure, is quite more well known than Dr M is, and probably doesn’t need me to add to the chorus of voices who have extolled his virtues over the years. But bring him up I nonetheless do, for three reasons- firstly, there are STILL some new people I meet who have never heard of him, despite the fact that his earliest work is now 34 years old, secondly because I would like to reintroduce those who have been put off by his odd writing style and inability to tell a straight-faced joke and labelled him ‘unfunny’ to his world, and thirdly because I had something of a Hitchiker’s refreshment course yesterday evening. It was awesome.

So, Douglas Adams: born in Cambridge in 1952, his story really comes to be of interest in 1971, whilst hitch-hiking around Europe. Lying drunk in a field in Innsbruck, Austria, with his copy of ‘The Hitchiker’s Guide to Europe’ beside him and staring up at the Milky Way above him, he thought that somebody really ought to make a Hitchiker’s guide to the Galaxy as well, showing the sparks of offbeat, eccentric genius that would typify his later work. After graduating from Cambridge University he headed to London to try and break into radio & TV as a writer, following his English degree and a passion for creative writing. Despite working with Monty Python’s Graham Chapman for a while and even appearing in a couple of sketches, he struggled to fit in with writing for his chosen media, and work was slow for much of the seventies. Then, in 1978, he began working on a six-part radio series called ‘The Ends of the Earth’, the idea being that each episode would end with the world being destroyed in a different way. Working on the first episode, Adams realised he had a problem. To make his story work, he needed there to be an alien of some sort on Earth, and more importantly a reason for him to be there. Eventually, his piece of 7 year-old inspiration came back to him, and his character became a roving researcher for a wholly remarkable book: The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The character became Ford Prefect (so named because, having not done his research properly, he thought that the name would be nicely inconspicuous) and, along with the tea-obsessed, dressing gown-wearing and very English main character Arthur Dent, would become a central feature of both that episode and, as Adams quickly changed tack to follow this new story instead of writing 5 new ones, the rest of the series of The Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy.

That radio series was broadcast in 1978, and catapulted Adams to fame. It was something of a love/hate thing- some thought Adams quirky, offbeat sense of humour was weird and unfunny, whilst others declared him a comic genius for the invention of, say, the Babel fish:

The Babel Fish is small, yellow, leech like, and possibly the oddest thing in the universe. It feeds on brainwave energy, absorbing unconscious frequencies and then excreting a complex matrix formed from the concious frequencies picked up from the speech centres of the brain- the practical upshot of which is that if you stick one in your ear you can instantly understand everything said to you in any form of language. The speech you here decodes the brainwave matrix.

Now, it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so mind-bogglingly useful could evolve purely by chance that many races have chosen to use it as final clinching proof of the nonexistence of God*. The argument goes something like this:

“I refuse to prove that I exist” says God, “for proof denies faith and without faith I am nothing”

“BUT” says man “the Babel Fish is a dead giveaway isn’t it? It proves you exist and so therefore you don’t, QED”

“Oh dear” says God “I hadn’t thought of that”, and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.

“Oh that was easy” says man, and for an encore he goes on to prove that black is white and get’s killed on the next zebra crossing.

Meanwhile the poor Babel fish, having effectively removed all barriers of communication between species, has caused more and bloodier wars than any race in the history of the galaxy.

*It is worth mentioning that Adams was a staunch atheist

So… yeah, that’s Douglas Adams humour- my unfortunate friends have to put up with me spouting that kind of stuff a lot. That’s hardly an isolated example either, for Adams has proposed, explained or made mention of the concepts of spaceships powered by improbability (and, indirectly, tea), restaurant mathematics and bad news, exactly how to throw oneself at the ground and miss, custom-made luxury planet building, a restaurant at the end of the universe that works by being impossible in at least 6 ways, the Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster (the effect of which is like having your brain smashed out by a slice of lemon wrapped round a large gold brick) the unimaginable usefulness of a towel, the Somebody Else’s Problem field, Vogon Poetry (and that of Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings, a corruption of the name of someone Adams went to university with) and the Ultimate Answer to Life, The Universe, And Everything (42, in case you’re interested- they just keep having problems finding the Ultimate Question). To name but a few. You get the general picture.

After the success of the first radio series, the BBC commissioned a second. Between and after this, Adams turned his attention to novel writing, and began a tradition of substantially rewriting the storyline with each new incarnation of it to, among other things, ‘annoy the fans’. The first part of what would later become his famous ‘trilogy in five parts’ was published in 1979, and was later followed by The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Life the Universe and Everything, So Long and Thanks for All the Fish and Mostly Harmless (all of which are references to parts of the first book). He also produced a 1981 TV adaptation, and a few other projects including the novel Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, the little joke dictionary The Meaning of Liff, and a radio series and book entitled Last Chance to See, about endangered species.

But… what is it that makes him so special? Why the cult following? Why national towel day? Why do I know that Babel Fish quote above by heart? Well… I really don’t know. I can’t quantify the quirkiness, the jokes, the flashes of abstract genius that none bar perhaps Terry Pratchett have ever emulated, the way that every successive adaptation is sufficiently different that every fan’s experience is a little difference. I was indoctrinated through the radio series, think the TV adaptation is rubbish and that the books can’t quite capture the humour as well- but other people I know insist that the literary form is the greatest piece of writing in the universe. As for the film, I think it’s… different and not quite as amazing, but for some of my friends it’s their only dip in the ocean of Adams, and they loved every minute. Others thought it was terrible. It’s a funny old thing.

Adams died in 2002, long before his time. As Richard Dawkins said, in his passing “science has lost a friend, literature has lost a luminary, the mountain gorilla and the black rhino have lost a gallant defender”. But his stories will never die, so long as there are people willing to enjoy and remember them. They are not stories for everyone, but they’re something everyone should try, just in case they’re perfect for you. And remember, on May 25th: everyone should know where his towel is.