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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Money, part II

OK, and so I return from the heady excitement of a weekend’s rugby to the more confuzzling realities of base level economics- here comes the second (and hopefully final) part of my description of the precise way money works in the economic system. For those who haven’t read part one, do so (post before last), otherwise this will get confusing.

I must begin with a correction and apology for the end of the last post I did on this subject- towards the end, I began referring to the actual production of money & value in an economy as inflation, rather than what actually causes it- devaluing the effort inputted by the worker so as to create a profit margin for the company boss. This is very much NOT inflation- I was, once again, getting ahead of myself.

Just to clarify this, I thought I might begin on a slight tangent and define what inflation actually is. Inflation is the process of everything in an economy getting a little bit more expensive over time. Cat food, washing powder, the cost of your boss employing you (ie your salary)- over time, this all rises slowly, at a rate of a fer percent a year. This is why, if you read old books or hear people talking about days gone by, people seemed to be able to get things incredibly cheaply in the past. Case in point- when I was at primary school, my teacher used to tell us about this shop her son (several years older than us) used to go to to buy sweets. At this shop, there was a row of sweets worth a few pennies, ranging from 10 down to 1p in price. Nowadays if I go into my local newsagents, the cheapest sweet I could buy costs 12p, and most cost quite a bit more. Why? Inflation.

The reason I was getting inflation confused with the production of value (for want of a better term), is partly because it, superficially, appears to be the same basic idea. I mean, if everything’s worth more money, the value of everything must be going up, right? Wrong- remember that money is only an arbitrary construct to give us an idea of value. Everything might be getting slowly more expensive, yes- but everyone’s salary will also be increasing at, on average, the same rate. So, for example, while your groceries bill may be getting steadily more expensive as the years go by, it will still remain roughly the same proportion of what you earn (presuming you stay in roughly the same job), so will not actually be putting any greater strain on your bank account.

So why do we have inflation, then? Why do our economists and politicians always try to ensure a low,  steady rate of inflation is always ticking over? After all, hyperinflation like what occurred in Germany in the chaos after the First World War can devastate a country, and its economy ( I heard a story once of someone at the time whose coffee went up in price by a quarter in the time it took him to drink it). Simple answer- it promotes growth, and is inherently linked to the process of ‘creating value’.

To explain: imagine a company makes cars. Because there is a differential between how much the car’s value is increased by people working on it, and how much said people get paid, the head of the company makes money. This means he is able to go out and buy things from his friend’s company, who make motorbikes. This makes his friend some money, which he spends on something else, etc. etc. until eventually more people are able to buy the first guy’s cars. This increases the demand for his cars, and thus the price he can get away with charging for them (no.1 rule of economics- when demand exceeds supply, price goes up, and vice versa, because there will always be someone willing to pay a bit more to ensure he gets the car and the other guy doesn’t). This increases his turnover. At this point he thinks “hmm, I’ve got a bit more money now, so I’ll pay my workers more. That way, people will come to work for me, not the guy next door”. So he raises his wages. To combat this, the guy in the factory next door raises his wages so all his workers don’t leave him, and all the other factories do too. Thus everyone’s wages increase, all the prices increase and hey- inflation. Notice how this process has lead to more people buying things (in reality this  is not just the bosses who do this, but reality economics is heinously complicated), and thus growth. This is, therefore, the basic cycle of economic growth.

However, the same is not so true for hyperinflation- when inflation gets out of hand. Since inflation leads to everything being worth more money but having the same value, it, over time, leads to the gentle devaluation of currency. If this process happens too quickly, and money becomes rapidly worth less and less, everyone gets terrified of the economic situation and uncertainty (how would you feel if you had no idea how expensive the milk would be when you got to the supermarket, and had to carry a wheelbarrow full of notes to pay for it), so people stop buying things and the economy ceases to show any real growth. This is why the situation is so bad in countries like Zimbabwe at the moment, where a mixture of corruption in the political system and generalised chaos everywhere else has lead to idiotic economic policies that cause inflation to soar upwards just as the real economy plummets downhill. In summary, therefore, a low, steady rate of inflation is the best thing for all concerned.

Right, that’s inflation covered, now onto… ah, right, 950 words already. Damn, I really need to get less into this. Either that or economics has got to become a lot easier to explain. Either way, I’m probably going to need another post to actually make my point on this (yes, I did intend to make a point at the start of this but have got somewhat bogged down, it seems) if not more, so think I will sign off for tonight. Saturday’s post will contain the third instalment of what I hope ends up just being a trilogy of economics, and I may actually get round to going beyond an anatomical description. Although please- don’t hold me to that.