The Counterfeiters: An Interview with Stefan Ruzowitzky
by David Archibald
Germany’s troubled wartime past, the subject of recent films Downfall and Sophie Scholl, is visited once more in The Counterfeiters (Die Fälscher). Directed by Austrian-born Stefan Ruzowitzky, it is the incredible story of the inmates of Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp who are forced to work on Operation Bernhard, a plan first devised in 1936 to flood the U.K. and U.S. with counterfeit currency in an attempt to destabilize their respective economies.
The film is based on ninety-year-old Holocaust survivor Adolf Burger’s firsthand account, The Devil’s Workshop, which he penned in the aftermath of the Second World War. In his youth Burger worked in the underground, forging baptism certificates for the Slovakian Communist Party before his arrest and imprisonment. As the war was drawing to a close, the German government accelerated Operation Bernhard and managed to produce over £130 million. At Sachsenhausen, blocks eighteen and nineteen were assigned to the top-secret project where Burger and his colleagues (all Jewish printers, typesetters, and artists gathered from various concentration camps across Europe) worked under the guidance of a Russian master forger, Salomon Smolianoff (the corresponding character in the film is called Salomon Sorowitsch). Burger played a small but significant part in both establishing and sabotaging the process, although in the film he is presented as the leader of the campaign to subvert the operation.
Much of the action is shot with a hand-held camera, which, coupled with washed-out colors, creates a twenty-first-century cinematic esthetic, modern yet nostalgic. Ruzowitzky, most well known for the German horror films Anatomie (2000) and Anatomie 2 (2003), steps into controversial territory here. In order to heighten the moral dilemmas facing the inmates, Ruzowitzky plays fast and loose with historical detail, leaving the film open to the accusation that it exaggerates both the possibility of actively sabotaging the operation and the possibility of resistance to the Holocaust. Still, despite these shortcomings The Counterfeiters is a story powerfully told and one that is marked by an intense central performance from Karl Markovics as Sorowitsch.
Cineaste spoke to Ruzowitzky during the 2007 Edinburgh International Film Festival.—David Archibald
Cineaste: What attracted you to this specific story?
Stefan Ruzowitzky: Being Austrian and having grandparents who were—some more, some less—dedicated followers of the Nazi party, and living in a country where politicians still get away with saying incredible things about the Nazi era, I always felt that sooner or later in my career I should make a statement. So when I first heard about the story I thought that this could be the right story for me. The pitch was a counterfeiter in a concentration camp. Even without knowing the story this was sort of interesting, I hadn’t heard that before: a crook, a playboy, a counterfeiter, a jailbird—how is he going to deal with this extreme situation?
Cineaste: The film is based on Adolf Burger’s book The Devil’s Workshop. How did you go about adapting it for the screen?
Ruzowitzky: The book was published right after the war. Like many concentration-camp inmates who published their memoirs right after the war Adolf didn’t want to have anything to do with it for many years. I think that he republished it in the Seventies or Eighties, when Auschwitz denial came up: right-wing politicians saying, “Auschwitz had never happened,” and “There’s no proof that people had been gassed.” And then he started to lecture in schools and this became his mission in life, to tell people his story. The story is so full of bizarre and absurd details: the Nazis playing music all the time to motivate the inmates, the ping-pong table, all these things are historic.
The only change I made was to restructure it a little bit—the chain of events and the time frame. But there was nothing that had to be invented because the reality was dramatic and absurd enough, and it was more a matter of leaving out certain things because they were too absurd and people would not have believed them. For instance, Adolf told us that his brother managed to organize him some papers so he could travel to Palestine and this would have made it possible for him to leave Auschwitz if he had gotten them there—nobody could imagine things like that happening.
The only big change I made, which Mr. Burger didn’t like at all, was that in the last days of the war the counterfeiters were moved from Sachsenhausen to other camps, which were further away from the approaching Russian Army, and I left that out because I felt it wasn’t important for the story I wanted to tell.
Cineaste: Was Adolf Burger involved in the script?
Ruzowitzky: In one draft I made a mistake: the counterfeiters were transported to a camp in Austria where they were finally liberated by the American army, but in one draft—I do not show this in the movie—I had changed that scene to show them being liberated by the Russian army, since Sachsenhausen was liberated by the Russians. And this was one of the cases where Mr. Burger said, “No way. I was liberated by the Americans.”
Cineaste: The film raises the possibility of rebellion, but how possible was that in this situation?
Ruzowitzky: Talking to Mr. Burger, he was much more in real life like Salomon Sorowitsch. In terms of being a man with a talent to survive he was not such an idealist in the way that I present him in my movie, but he was somebody who was fighting for his survival and the idea of rebellion wasn’t there. They did sabotage the currency, this is true, and sort of managed this breakthrough so late that the Nazis couldn’t use the currency. The fiction starts when the Nazis say, “We need the currency. If you aren’t able to deliver within six weeks we are going to shoot a few men.” And at that point for the historic counterfeiters there was no question, we are going to deliver, and there was nobody standing out, like in the movie, saying, “But there are principles to follow.” For them it was clear, “We did our best and sabotaged, but we won’t risk anybody’s life.”
Cineaste: In the film’s program notes you talk about the departure from historical reality, but how much are the politics of rebellion in the film influenced by your own politics, or how much are they in the interests of drama?
Ruzowitzky: The basic conflict was there. Burger and others sabotaging and not talking with Salomon Smolianoff, the role model for Karl’s part—they wouldn’t talk with him because he delivered perfect stuff. Burger said, “Shouldn’t we discuss it with him?,” and the others said, “No way, because we can’t trust him and he is trying to do a perfect job because he is a professional counterfeiter, and that’s his pride, to make perfect forged money, and he wouldn’t understand the idea of sabotaging because he has all the means—it’s a professional paradise for him.” This basic conflict was there but I pushed it a little bit further in the movie.
I try to make clear that this was a very special place. This was not a normal concentration-camp unit, this was as out of the ordinary as it could be. In this privileged space, of course, there was space for moral decisions in a way that you did not have if you were in a normal working unit, but there you had the possibility to think and make moral decisions.
Cineaste: Did Burger have any thoughts about the way that debate is presented in the film?
Ruzowitzky: We asked him. It would not have been a problem to change his name as well. We changed all the other names, and his name is the only one that stayed unchanged. If he had wanted it, it would not have been a problem but it was okay for him.
He is happy with his story being told to such a big audience now. Every time we have been to festivals together, I always leave the screening room because I have seen the movie so often, but Mr. Burger always stays in there. If you ask him to come out to speak to the press, “No, I want to see the movie.” He has seen it six or seven times now in my presence. I think that for him it takes time to really realize what is happening here. But his first reaction was that the mission of his life was kind of fulfilled because this movie is going to travel around the world and his story is getting everywhere. This is the main point for him.
Cineaste: In the film the Holocaust is present, but mainly in the background: why was that?
Ruzowitzky: I would not have dared to make a movie that tries to show the normal life of a concentration-camp inmate because I think that that is not possible. It’s not possible because we cannot identify with such a person. We cannot say, “What would I do if I was an inmate in a concentration camp?,” because the situation is so extreme and so far away from what we know. Whereas I felt that in this case, inside this privileged camp, you have this moral question of, how am I dealing with the fact that I am privileged, that I am getting good food, that I am living under sort of acceptable conditions but know that behind that wooden fence my friend and family are being killed and tortured to death? With this situation I think that we can identify, and we can imagine what it would be like, what one would do in that situation.
Cineaste: How does the film fit into the Holocaust genre?
Ruzowitzky: There’s a big difference, especially compared, for instance, to Shoah, which was produced in the Seventies, at a time when the victims were still alive and the criminals were still at the top of German and Austrian society. In that situation it made a great deal of sense to confront the audience with witnesses and facts, and to say, ‘This is the way that it was.’ Nowadays my audience consists of the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the people involved. We have very few witnesses left and the witnesses are like Mr. Burger, ninety years old, and it’s difficult to remember at that age.
There’s another survivor from the counterfeiters unit, and these two old men were visiting the set, and one said the beds had been made out of wood, and the other one said, no, they were metal, and one said they were three levels high and the other one two. It’s difficult. They have been in many camps and their memories get mixed up. It was more than sixty years ago and so I think that it definitely makes sense nowadays to tell fictionalized stories, not to try to tell the whole truth like in an encyclopedia—“This is the story of the Holocaust”—but to try to explain the whole phenomenon by telling the story of one individual or a group of individuals. I think that this is how things have changed. In Germany and Austria, the television series Holocaust and Spielberg’s Schindler’s List are landmarks in terms of society becoming aware of the Holocaust and of what happened back then.
Cineaste: How did you work with the actors before the shoot?
Ruzowitzky: We rehearsed a lot, for almost a month, with the whole ensemble, like a play, going through the whole script and doing the whole thing, from start to end in two days. This helped a lot. This is always a problem doing an ensemble piece—the actors are afraid: “Will anybody see me?” But because of the rehearsals, the actors saw what they were doing and realized that they didn’t need to worry about getting lost in the movie. This was very good experience, and we also filmed this on video and this was the main source for the staging concept afterwards. This was real documentary film work because the cinematographers just did not know what was going to happen, like in a documentary, and they tried to get their best shots. And we used that in the film where we sometimes crossed the axis—this is forbidden, it is a no-no, but in the documentation of the rehearsals this happened a couple of times, and in two instances we thought that it had a good effect, so we used this “mistake.”
Cineaste: What type of esthetic did you want the film to have?
Ruzowitzky: The idea was first to have a contemporary esthetic with a hand-held camera, almost Dogme-like. The idea is not to emphasize the historical distance, but to present this as a modern story or a story which raises questions which could affect our life in our world as well. The main goal was to try to have a contemporary esthetic and not to give it a classical or period flavor.
David Archibald teaches Film Studies at the University of Glasgow.
Copyright © 2008 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XXXIII, No. 2