Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Counterfeiters

A friend and I went to see The Counterfeiters yesterday. The movie won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. It's the story of a Jewish counterfeiter forced to fake dollars and pounds for the Nazis in a death camp during World War II.

Have you ever walked into a film with the completely wrong idea about it? I only had the vaguest sense of the plot, and something about the title 'The Counterfeiters' just made me think of a 60's comedy caper or musical or something. In other words, I thought the Nazis would be of the Captain Klink variety, or at least know how to dance in a line.

Uh, no. These were some decidedly more authentic Nazis. But after I readjusted my entertainment perspectives in the most drastic of ways, I got swept up in the movie and its main character, Salomon Sorowitsch. He's a funny choice of a hero for a Holocaust movie. He's a career criminal. He's not remotely interested in the plight of his own Jewish people as the Third Reich decimates it. He's not much of a talker. He's completely out for himself. Most heroes in Holocaust movies are morally upright, steadfast and true. Not Salomon. He knows who he is. He's the first Holocaust anti-hero.

The main action of the film involves a plot by the Nazis to produce mass quantities of British pounds and American dollars to flood and destroy the Allied economies with. Salomon was a career counterfeiter with a huge reputation, and he's forced to manage a crew of printers and engravers and whatnot to fill the Nazis need for fake bills.

Salomon sees the deal: survival in return for counterfeiting. And he likes it. While some of the other prisoners grumble and struggle with the moral dilemma, Salomon knows exactly where he stands. In his words, he'd rather be gassed tomorrow than shot today. A day is still a day.

As you read this? Do you care about Salomon? Does he have character sympathy? Would you keep watching? Not necessarily. In most Holocaust movies, he'd be a side character. He'd get his just desserts about 2/3 or the way through.

But if you watch the film, he has a great deal of character sympathy. Why?

First and foremost, he's consistent. We can see how he thinks. How he thinks is constantly going to bring him into Faustian deals, both with the Nazis and with the prisoners who want to resist and undermine the whole operation rather than help the Nazis. For all the pages and pages written about character sympathy, I'm beginning to suspect that simple scene-to-scene consistency is the most important (and a tremendous tool for a writer).

The more satisfying reason is some very crafty writing. Writers have trouble with anti-heroes. They don't have all the neat bag of tricks that a regular hero has. And many writers simply keep hitting the same 'anti-hero' note over and over again.

Not writer Stefan Ruzowitsky. What happens to Salomon is remarkable. He is the only prisoner not crippled with moral qualms, so he rises to the top of the camp. He's got fewer qualms than the Nazi who runs the counterfeiting operation. And he overcomes him. And he manages to keep all the counterfeiters relatively healthy and safe right through to the end of the war.

His choices are fascinating, and in the end they reach a nice three-act climax. It's not a script I'd teach beginning screenwriting from, but it has something to teach all of us at some point.

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