The fine line between right and wrong

'The Counterfeiters' director visits Israel, details Oscar winner dilemmas.

Adolf Burger 2 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy )
Adolf Burger 2 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy )
It could have been a scene from The Counterfeiters itself: At an emotional press conference at the Tel Aviv Museum last week, Adolf Burger, who wrote the memoir, The Devil's Workshop, on which the movie was based, proudly displayed one of the millions of British pounds he helped counterfeit while he was a concentration-camp inmate during World War II. As the 90-year-old Burger and director Stefan Ruzowitzky, along with several other survivors involved in this forgery and their children, sat in the gallery lined with paintings by Renaissance masters, cameras clicked and Ruzowitzky noted, "For all these men, it was so important to use their skills again in the concentration camp. Mr. Burger was a trained printer, and after the war he dedicated his life to fighting fascism. Still, he is very proud of his products and their quality." As Burger nodded, the moment seemed to embody the paradox at the heart of the critically acclaimed film, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film last month: that there is a human need to take pride in one's work, even if it is in the service of a morally questionable cause. Burger's on-screen character voices the argument that it was wrong to counterfeit millions of pounds and thousands of dollars that the Nazis used to try to destabilize the Allied economies, and also to buy raw materials to keep the war going. Other characters, especially Salomon (Sally) Sorowitsch, take the view that the most important goal is survival. In an interview after the press conference, Ruzowitzky noted that as he made the movie, he went back and forth as to which viewpoint he found more compelling. But the director emphasized that, "It's not for us to judge these people. At the end of the movie, I show Sally thinking, 'Was it worth it?' He can ask himself that, we can't ask it of him." Ruzowitzky had been thinking about making a film about the Holocaust when he heard about the story of the massive counterfeiting operation, planned by the Nazis and carried out by skilled Jewish inmates. It was not an easy story for the director to adapt. "I spent a long time working on the script," says Ruzowitzky, because the complexity of the story posed some unusual issues. "It's very delicate. Usually you have the arc of the main character, he learns something and he becomes a better person, which would be an awful message in this case, as if it was somehow good to be in a concentration camp. That's why I made it clear that Sally, the professional counterfeiter, continues to be a counterfeiter [after the war]. It was very tricky to write. I read a lot of survivors' memoirs." Asked at the press conference whether he felt that the film was in some way anti-Semitic, since it showed Jews engaging in criminal activity to survive and also because it portrayed them as experts on money and deceit, Ruzowitzky, who is not Jewish, flatly denied this. "After I had written the first draft, I felt I had fallen for positive clichés. I had made all the characters noble intellectuals. In fact, many of them were blue-collar workers, with printing skills. I realized if you make them all wonderful, you're falling for a positive stereotype. You're still saying they're different. I rewrote it to show that they were not flawless victims waiting to be murdered, but real people. I thought that the best approach is to show them as normal human beings... One of the points of the movie is that even a little crook like Sally doesn't deserve to be killed in a camp. If anti-Semitism starts when not every Jewish character is perfect, then I don't get that." In trying to find an appropriate way to tell this story, he hit upon the idea of the framing device, in which, right after the war, Sally visits Monaco, where he goes on a gambling spree and hires a call girl with some of the forged money that he pocketed at the end of the war. "It's the ultimate happy ending, but he's sitting on the beach, asking himself, 'Did I come too close to evil?' I wanted to make a suspenseful movie, but I didn't want the suspense to be about whether he will survive, but about how and why... It's not a concentration-camp movie, but a morality play and an adventure movie." ASKED AT the press conference what he felt about "stealing our Oscar," since many in Israel had hoped that the Israeli nominee, Beaufort, would win, he said, "Well, I'm sorry you lost, but glad I won." Working with Burger, who was a script consultant, was a positive experience, Ruzowitzky said, although, "I was a bit nervous. I was writing a script about his life. But he was very open to me making the changes I needed to make his story work as a film. He has given hundreds of lectures and he knew it was important to tell the story in a way that people will listen. But sometimes he was very strict, saying, 'This will not be right.'" One example of a change that Ruzowitzky made to Burger's story was his decision not to chronicle the printer's arduous ordeal after the liberation of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where the counterfeiting operation took place. At the press conference, Ruzowitzky graciously allowed the extraordinarily youthful 90-year-old script consultant to take center stage. Burger spoke passionately about his post-war work, writing, lecturing and documenting the horrors of the camps. At the end, I asked Burger whether he still remembered the counterfeiting techniques he had perfected during the war. Burger, who lives in Prague but is a frequent visitor to Israel, replied, "In those years [in the camps], I learned so much that I can counterfeit anything. I can even counterfeit you!"