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Old Form, New Story
By Donal Foreman

Conterfeiters.Traditional narrative drama tends to be about hard choices. Not just the kind of choices for which there is no obvious right answer, but ones which are so grave in their implications that a person's moral character can be defined by how they tackle it. This is a potent form for exploring ethics, and in a world where our choices, even on an everyday basis, are so far from black and white in their implications, it's an eminently relevant one.

Stefan Ruzowitzky's The Counterfeiters (Die Fälscher, Germany/Austria) applies such a narrative to an event that is no stranger to moral dilemmas: the Holocaust. Sorowitsch is a criminal money forger who, imprisoned in a concentration camp, ensures his own survival by offering his expert counterfeiting skills to assist the Nazis. Although Sorowitsch's philosophy is initially self-serving – questioned about his lack of solidarity with other Jews, he replies simply "I am me, and the others are the others" —  the horror of the camp gradually forces him to confront the film's central dilemma: Is it better to ensure one's own survival above all, or to take a stand against oppression, even if it means death?

The film's articulation of this conflict is achieved by fairly conventional means. Sorowitsch's individualism is pitted against fellow inmate Berger's communist ideal of solidarity, both of whom are contrasted with Herzog, the Nazi officer in charge of their counterfeiting operation, whose casual civility to the inmates belies a self-serving pragmatism akin to Sorowitsch's. With all these embodiments of moral philosophies shouting at each other in scene after scene, the film begins to feel at times like no more than a debate disguised as drama.

While this debate is consistently engaging, sometimes it confronts the issues too squarely on the nose. Line after line of dialogue serves to make explicit each character's philosophy, the most acute example being Salamon's initial belief that Jews are persecuted because they won't adapt, which neatly contrasts with Berger's assertion that the Nazi system works because "nobody's prepared to die for principles". While encapsulatory lines like that make capsule reviews like this considerably easier to write, it leaves something to be desired as a cinematic experience.

Despite this weakness, The Counterfeiters should be admired for employing this age-old narrative form with such seriousness. Like most old forms, it is oftentimes treated as no more than a formula. There's a world of difference, say, between Hamlet agonizing over the prospect of revenging his father, and Spiderman having to choose between saving his girlfriend and a train full of people. An unequivocally good character having to making an impossible choice is not a real moral dilemma.

The Counterfeiters, on the other hand, suggests that we are all imperfect and compromised individuals, yet more importantly, we are not powerless. Our choices matter, whatever ones we make.

Perhaps the characters' philosophies and beliefs are so overtly emphasized to suggest that, in a way, we are what we believe — and that's what defines our choices too.

Donal Foreman



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