Thursday, April 17, 2008

Artifice

Stefan Ruzowitzky's Die Falscher

[warning: Some Spoilers]

There is a scene in Imre Kertesz's Liquidation where a group of people at a party play a game of Lager poker - each person names which camp they were in and the chips are awarded based on how bad the camp was. B. the novel's central character, withdraws from the game, because he was at Auschwitz, and Auschwitz in untrumpable.

The ghost of Auschwitz, and the heirarchy of suffering it implies haunts Stefan Ruzowitzky's Academy Award Winning film - Die Falscher - about a group of Jewish counterfeiters who are given special treatment in exchange for their services in producing fake foreign currency to fund the German war effort. For the central characters of the film, the problem is not simply of how far to collaborate, or how to balance the exigencies of survival against the principle of resistance; the existential crisis of conscience they face is how to define themselves in a world where they are privileged non-entities. Forced by circumstances to play the double role of being both the victims and the elite, both the blessed and the damned, the counterfeiters struggle to cope with both the fear, suffering and helplessness that is an integral part of camp life, as well as the guilt of knowing, even as they suffer, that everyone else has it much worse. What they are trying to forge (in both senses of the word) is a currency of action that their conscience will accept, and the strain of doing so lies at the heart of the tension in the film - a tension that could come straight out of Sartre.

But the characters are not the only ones faced with a dilemma. Their director, Stefan Ruzowitzky has his own challenge - how to bring moral weight to characters who are not only, by the well-documented standards of concentration camp inmates, extremely fortunate, but also collaborators, however unwilling, in the Nazi enterprise? Had Ruzowitzky tried to downplay these aspects of his characters lives - the privileges, the uneasy relationship with the Nazis - this would have been an ordinary, even bathetic film. What makes Die Falscher work (despite an overplotted script, a deeply flawed ending, and a little too much melodrama for my taste) is that Ruzowitzky is clever enough to focus on the privileges rather than deny them.

Indeed, as the film opens, it almost seems as though Ruzowitzky is trying to emphasize the advantages his main character - a master forger called Salomon Sorowitsch ('Sally' for short) - enjoys. The film opens with a depiction of Sally after the war, living the high life in Monte Carlo, then switches back to show us Sally's devil may care ways in pre-war Berlin. When Sally is finally sent to a concentration camp, his stay there is hastily rushed through, and in hardly any time at all we find him being recruited into the counterfeiting ring, where he is allowed to wear civilian clothes, housed in a comfortable dormitory and given weekends off. If all this wasn't enough, Sally himself is depicted as being the consummate scoundrel - sly, self-centered, manipulative. It's almost as though Ruzowitzky was making every effort to make Sally (and by extension the rest of the counterfeiters) as unsympathetic as possible.

What Ruzowitzky is really doing, I think, is setting up a study in implied contrast, inverting the normal rules of portraying suffering by showing us not the worst but the best, leaving us to imagine what the worst was like. As the film progresses we come to see how thin the shiny surface of privilege these counterfeiters skate on truly is, how easily it could shatter and plunge them into the dark depths that are always just inches under their feet, and how nimbly they must constantly maneuver to keep from meeting that end. The point is not simply that the life of the counterfeiters - for all its relative comfort - is fraught with peril and suffering; the point is precisely that the comfort is relative. Not to be shot or beaten on the passing whim of any passing soldier is a real privilege in this camp, but the fact that so basic a freedom as the right to life is a hard won reward speaks volumes for the horror of the concentration camps.

What Ruzowitzky achieves, then - and it is a considerable achievement - is a shifting of perspective that sets up a contrast between the absolute standards we are used to and the relative standards of the concentration camp, using that contrast to highlight how terrible the camps really were. In one powerful scene, for instance, Sally carries a dead coworker out of the area reserved for the counterfeiters and into the main camp and asks, "Where should I take him? He's dead." It seems like a perfectly reasonable question, until the camera draws back and shows you the emaciated bodies of the regular inmates who lie dead or dying by the dozens around him - a scene that makes Sally's concern for the death of his coworker seem ridiculous by comparison.

Sally's own transformation into a sympathetic, almost heroic character (which owes a great deal to a fascinating performance by Karl Markovics) is also part of this alchemy. The point is not that the experience of the concentration camp has somehow turned Sally into a saint or a humanitarian. The point is that even a selfish, hardened criminal like Sally has standards that are considerably higher than those of the genocidal murderers around him. Sally's code has not changed, it is just that in the hell he is consigned to his actions, driven by a notion of honor that is as unwavering as it is obscure, seem almost inspirational.

In the end, perhaps the finest and most insightful moment in Die Falscher comes towards the end, when the counterfeiters, coming face to face with the other inmates of the camp, are forced to confront their shame at having received special treatment, at not being able to match the suffering of the others. Desperately, the counterfeiters point to the one man among them who dared sabotage the counterfeiting operation, thus seriously hindering the German war effort. "He's a hero", they announce, but their voices as they say it lack conviction. And yet it is true that the man is a hero - he did take terrible risks, he did cause the Nazis a serious setback. Why then are those celebrating him so apologetic? Perhaps because they realize that in a world where devoid of all humanity even heroism is a privilege. To be a hero, to show courage in adversity, requires that one have some control over one's destiny; for the millions imprisoned in the Nazi death camps History offered no such control, provided no such choices. In the world of the concentration camp, even the ability to risk your life for your ideals is a privilege, and Die Falscher is a fitting testament to that terrible truth.

5 comments:

indian2006 said...

Lovely review.

km said...

On a somewhat related note:

Not sure if you caught "Holocaust: A Music Memorial Film"? It was playing on PBS last night. It featured a live orchestra performing inside the camp. Brilliant documentary.

Gorecki's "Sorrowful Songs" was simply outstanding. (It's up on YT.)

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Anonymous said...

km: Olivier Messiaen?

n!

km said...

n!: No pieces by Messiaen, but the orchestra played Bach, Chopin, Gorecki, Ullman and Schubert. (I was not familiar with Ullman's music and I must say, one of the selections from his last opera (which features in the docu) was just terrific.)