From The Blues Brothers to Raiders of the Lost Ark, Nazis have been a perverse gift to comedies and action movies, even to the genre sui generis of the Russ Meyer movie, in which they appear variously as bartenders and decrepit old lechers paying (male) hippie hitchhikers for sex. As I dither over whether to pay top dollar to see the Indiana Jones movie or just wait for the DVD, I think fondly of Toht from Raiders of the Lost Ark, the bad guy always sweating in the black trenchcoat who burns his hand with the headpiece to the staff of Ra. Perhaps the most memorable cinematic Nazi ever. I still have all the dialogue memorized right up to the final shriek before he melts like a human Dreamsicle.
What dream villains action movie Nazis are. Their political convictions put them beyond the pale of humanity, so it’s perfectly okay to cheer when they drive over cliffs, get run over with army trucks, or have their genitals chewed off by piranhas. Contrast the frivolity of the decontextualized Nazi with the sobering quality of his most notorious handiwork: the concentration camp. The concentration camp is never, can never be, anything but grim (“Hogan’s Heroes doesn’t count—that was a POW camp); its historicity is too monumental to toy with, its implications universally recognized and understood. In Life Is Beautiful, perhaps the closest we’ve come to a death camp comedy, Roberto Benigni turns the logic of the concentration camp on its ear, reimagining it as a child’s game—perhaps bravely, but also so smothered in whimsy and self-serving sentimentality that the movie comes off as profoundly disingenuous to anyone unbesotted enough to look past the high-concept conceit. Benigni’s shameless grandstanding at the Oscars didn’t do much to sell me on his earnestness, either, walking over the tops of chairs and kissing the tops of people’s heads, but then I haven’t had any use for him since Night on Earth.
On the other end of things you’ve got the grim verité of Steven Spielberg and Schindler’s List. I’m not asking a film to treat a Nazi concentration camp as something it wasn’t, but I would suggest there exist emotional gradations and textures yet to be explored between these two extremes. I haven’t seen it, but Tim Blake Nelson’s The Grey Zone, about the experience of Kapo collaborators in the camps, is said to be one such essay. Another is The Counterfeiters, directed by Stefan Ruzowitsky, which examines an elite group of Jewish prisoners kept alive in the camps to help the Nazis forge millions in foreign currency.
The main story of The Counterfeiters unfolds after a brief prologue in a weary-looking Monte Carlo immediately after the end of the war. We see the bent, wiry figure of Salomon “Sally” Sorowitsch checking into a posh hotel, brusquely deflecting all attempts at small talk, peeling fifties off the top of a 1945-sized fortune in crisp American dollars. He sleeps with a prostitute, startling her with the identification number tattooed into his forearm (tattoos would also help unmask former SS members when the Soviets learned the elite troops had their blood types inscribed on their upper arms).
And so the long flashback begins, in Berlin, 1936. Sally, we learn, is a world-class counterfeiter doing a tidy business concocting fake documents for rich Jewish Berliners seeking to flee an increasingly oppressive regime. He gets arrested by a special police agent who will later reappear as the Nazi officer who gives Sally his chance to live, but the next we see Sally he’s breaking rocks at Mauthausen. It is axiomatic of concentration camps that to survive one must be either invisible or indispensable, and above all have amazing luck. Sally grasps for the latter two by making sympathetic drawings of the camp guards, parlaying their vanity into special treatment as a portraitist and mural painter. When the Nazi high command hatches a scheme to destroy the Allied economies by forging destabilizing quantities of fake banknotes, Sally is summoned to Sachsenhausen camp by special train along with a group of printers, engravers and financiers to do the work. Determined to survive the war, Sally is despised from all sides: by the Nazis, who scoff at the level to which he will stoop; by a Jewish financier who resents being made to work with a forger; by Burger, a communist firebrand whose wife is in Auschwitz and whose outspoken stance on collaboration with their captors puts them all at risk.
The moralizing Burger gets a bit wearisome, but then the screenplay was adapted from the real-life Adolf Burger’s memoirs. Characters are engrossing and performances excellent, particularly veteran Austrian actor Karl Markovics as Sally and Devid Streisow as the police inspector-turned-camp commandant, Herzog.
It’s just too bad this excellent movie shoots itself in the foot right at the very end, after the real race is already run. I might as well tell you, the framing device that works so elegantly at the beginning is a complete joke at the end. It’s almost an homage to the insipidity of Life Is Beautiful, outdoing Benigni at his schmaltziest and adding insult to injury with a voiced-over endnote reminiscent of a high-school history teacher piping her own voice-over into a teachable moment in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Ach, man. But zee rest ist gut, sehr gut.