The dilemma that never was
In Ruzowitzky's film, the audience would not understand. He shows everything. The Jews are conmen. They survive because they are conmen. The six million who did not survive, crooked or honest, are not mentioned at all.
This week's screening of "The Counterfeiters," the Oscar-winning film by Austrian director Stefan Ruzowitzky, was held under the auspices of the Austrian Embassy and Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs' and Victims' Remembrance Authority.
Yad Vashem chairman Avner Shalev gave some introductory remarks. It was embarrassing, because "The Counterfeiters" is a problematic film: it is made up entirely of stereotypes.
The true story: A number of prisoners in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp were put to work counterfeiting British and American money. The goal was to disrupt the British economy and fund the war effort. A good story.
In Ruzowitzky's film, however, everyone looks exactly as you would expect them to look. The Nazis are sadists; the director thought that if he did not show everything, the audience would not understand. He shows everything.
The Jews are conmen. They survive because they are conmen. The six million who did not survive, crooked or honest, are not mentioned at all.
One of the Jews remains a crook after the war: He takes some of the counterfeit money with him and goes to a casino to find a prostitute. When she sees the number tattooed on his arm, she no longer wants him, but he pays her anyway. With a counterfeit bill, of course; after all, he is a crooked Jew.
Up to this point, it is a question of taste. But Ruzowitzky also imposes a moral dilemma on his heroes: Should they even collaborate with the Nazis, when the money they are forging will enable the war to continue?
There is such an issue: How should we regard those Jews who agreed to serve on the "Jewish councils" set up by the Nazis; what should be the fate of Jews who agreed to serve as kapos, inmates placed in charge of other inmates; and so on. Few subjects are more sensitive; it is doubtful whether anyone has ever managed to give the matter proper artistic expression.
In this case, the dilemma never actually arose, as one of the Sachsenhausen forgers himself recounted at the screening. His name is Adolf Burger and he is 90, a resident of Prague.
When asked about the moral dilemma that occupies such a central place in the film, he said that it was hogwash. Everyone felt like death row inmates who had been given a vacation. It was their way to survive, and they did.
None of them imagined that there was anything wrong with it; no one considered the possibility of dying "for the principle," as Ruzowitzky makes one of his counterfeiters say, as though it were fitting that their conscience should trouble them.
"The Counterfeiters" therefore brings to mind some arrogant, audacious words once recorded from the lips of David Ben-Gurion: "Among the survivors of the German interment camps were people who would not have survived had they not been what they were, hard, evil, selfish people, and everything they endured uprooted from their souls every last bit of good."
The Austrians' pride is understandable. Their own muscleman may be governor of California, but an Oscar is something they don't see every day. On the other hand, it is apparently necessary to point out that not everything to which Hollywood gives an Oscar should also receive the sponsorship of Yad Vashem.