'Counterfeiters' about men, not money

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By Kelly LeVan

To call this a Holocaust film is like calling Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” a love triangle. You have some explaining to do.

Stefan Ruzowitsky’s “Flsher, Die,” or “The Counterfeiters” – 2008’s Oscar-winner for Best Foreign Language Film – takes place in a German concentration camp near the end of World War II. But like all memorable films, its setting serves more as a stage or catalyst than as the answer to the question, “What is this movie about?”

In this case, the story isn’t about Jews or Nazis – or even degradation or the nuances of hope, although it’s hard to talk about genocide without these. More accurately, it tries to define what people mean when they refer to “the greater good.”

After all, there are different ways to be selfless. Do you risk everything for the men who surround you – your mates – or do you do it for your principles, for the faceless, imagined masses you will never meet? How great is great?

Solomon “Sally” Sorowitsch (Karl Markovies), more anti-hero than hero right from the first scene, is not the “model” Jewish citizen you expect and want to see in a film set in this era. He’s a scoundrel: a card shark, a womanizer and a criminal. He trades fake passports for sex. He loves no one.

When the SS surprises him at home, he seems to deserve it. Or rather, while no one deserves the kind of treatment Jews received in Germany in the early 1940s, nevertheless, it’s hard to feel pity for Sorowitsch.

It becomes even harder when his illicit talents earn the favor of the Nazi commanders. He and others with similar abilities, including one Adolf Burger (August Diehl), get food, clothing (secondhand, from Auschwitz) and soft, clean mattresses – the best accommodations at the camp. They listen to beautiful music and even play ping-pong on evenings and weekends.

In exchange, they make counterfeit money. Or, to put it another way, they fund the Nazi war effort. If they don’t, they die.

Quite a decision for a man who likes to cheat at cards.

But the most captivating part of the story lies in the triumvirate involving Sorowitsch, Burger and Sturmbannfhrer Herzog (Devid Striesow).

Herzog, the Nazi commander alternately confiding in Sorowitsch and threatening to kill his men, seems to control over the prisoners’ fates. Sorowitsch believes he can keep himself alive, and wants to keep the men working next to him alive, too. Burger values mankind above all, and because the Nazis work against mankind, he works against them, even at the cost of his bunkmates’ lives.

How can a person decide between killing the people whose eyes he’s looked into – whom he’s shared jokes with – and keeping a brutal, totalitarian regime in business?

I like this film because it’s not a Holocaust movie; it’s a story about saving the human race, one decision at a time. And it’s a true one, based on the real-life Adolf Burger’s book, “The Devil’s Workshop.”

The Film Society of the Los Alamos Arts Council, together with UNM-Los Alamos, will present “The Counterfeiters” (rated R) with all its questions at 7 p.m. Thursday in the UNM-LA Student Center. Tickets are $5 or $3 with a UNM-LA student ID.

Call the LAAC at 663-0477 with any questions.

Editor’s note: Kelly LeVan is a board member of the Los Alamos Arts Council.