The idea of ‘surviving’ the Holocaust takes on many nuances in Stefan Ruzowitzky’s stark and intriguing evocation of a largely unknown area of Second World War German history: the use of skilled prisoners to create counterfeit currency for Operation Bernhard, a plan to flood the British and American economies with fake cash. Ruzowitzky gives us Salomon Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics), a successful, Jewish forger in the pre-war Berlin of 1936 whose instinct for self-preservation, in peacetime as well as war, is best summed up by his nonchalant attitude to the creeping pogrom: ‘I am me – and the others are the others.’
Hours later, Salomon is arrested, and for the rest of the ’30s and until the end of the war he finds himself putting his skills to a different use, first in Mauthausen and later Sachenshausen. He discovers that sketching Nazi officers brings a reward of better food, and soon his hosts transfer him to the ‘golden cage’, a hot-house of industry in the corner of a camp where uptight ex-bankers and criminals collude in producing dodgy notes in an environment of relative comfort. The film’s core dilemma emerges when the team are on the verge of cracking the dollar: if they continue, will they betray whatever political instincts they have left? And, if they succeed, will they become surplus to requirements and lose their privileges or, worse, be killed?
It’s the latter quandry which highlights some of the film’s curious and daring psychologies. We’re well-versed in Holocaust dramas in which the Nazis and the Jews are treated as separate, homogeneous entities; here, things are more complex. War doesn’t bestow a new personality on Salomon, it simply offers a new context within which this lone gun – his background is strikingly sketchy – must survive. More importantly, Ruzowitzky is aware that not all moral standards can survive the perversity of the Holocaust. As such, we’re invited to observe the behaviour in this studio within the greater theatre of war and rarely to judge, even when it comes to the Nazis. Ruzowitzky handles this perspective to excellent effect: despite our awareness of the Holocaust, we only see what Salomon sees – or, crucially, wants to see – even though we, like him, can hear the sound of gun-shots outside. He directs with urgency, lingering little, employing ample jolt-zooms and dousing his film in a colour palette that takes its cue from the grey stripes of the prisoners’ uniforms.
His meshing of plot with debate is impressive. His film is compelling and clever.