Most Holocaust narratives involve cruel Nazis and virtuous, victimized Jews. The Counterfeiters is at least a partial exception. The Nazis in the film are certainly cruel, but their cruelty is based on the perverted ideals of their racist ideology and on their need to obey orders or be killed rather than on their being innately evil men. They are capable of decency when it's in their interest.
The Jews in the special unit of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp depicted in The Counterfeiters are assembled because of their abilities in such skills as etching, printing, and, in the case of Salomon Sorowitsch, the film's protagonist, counterfeiting. The triangles sewn into their uniforms are a mixture of green (criminal), red (socialist or communist) and, in all cases, yellow (Jewish).
Other reviewers have ably described the major theme of The Counterfeiters, the conflict between, as David Denby puts it in the March 3, 2008 New Yorker, the relative heroism of "the morally intransigent man who refuses all compromise with evil, or the trimmer who partly collaborates with an oppressor in the hope of keeping himself and others alive". It may be significant that the German title of the film, Die Fälscher, can refer to falsifiers as well as counterfeiters.
Because The Counterfeiters is repeatedly described, by its publicists and others, as a "true story", I want to focus on some of the variations between the post-war interrogation statement given by Salomon Smolianoff, the real-life master counterfeiter portrayed in the film, and the events depicted in the movie. A photocopy of Smolianoff's original interrogation statement can be found on www.lawrencemalkin.com, the website of Lawrence Malkin, the author of Kreuger's Men, an account of counterfeiting operations during World War II.
My purpose is not to expose fabrications. Rather, it is to explore variations between life and art and to determine whether, in a particular work, these variations have a pattern that supports a consistent explanation.
The Physical Setting: In the interrogation statement, Smolianoff describes being taken to "a special barrack, which was located in absolute isolation and surrounded by heavy barb-wire." In the movie, there are several occasions on which the relatively privileged participants in the counterfeiting operation are exposed to the screams of regular inmates who are being beaten and killed. Such witnessing would not have been possible with the degree of physical separation described by Smolianoff.
Pounds and Dollars: In Smolianoff's narrative, he is transferred to Sachsenhausen, after counterfeit British pound notes have been successfully produced, in order to work on the more difficult forgery of American dollars. In the movie, Sorowitsch is involved with counterfeiting both pounds and dollars.
The Man in Charge: In real life, the German counterfeiting effort was called Operation Bernhard after Bernhard Krueger, the SS man who headed it. In the movie, a fictional Inspector Herzog arrests Sorowitsch in the mid thirties and, coincidentally, heads the counterfeiting project during the final months of World War II.
Sabotage: In the interrogation statement, Smolianoff describes the decision to sabotage the counterfeiting operation as occurring when the lights go out during an American air raid:
We took this occasion to agree between us for the first time to sabotaze (sic) the whole work. We dealt our tasks and agreed that in the future every one of us should complain about the work of the other, in order to gain time, because the situation of the war, promised to us an eventually (sic) escape from everything and a liberation by the approaching Allied troops
we fought each other really hard, but they couldn't miss (sic) us, because all the work depended on what we were producing.
In the movie, the sabotage is the result of continual discussion between Sorowitsch, the partial collaborator who is concerned primarily with survival, and Adolf Burger, a printer and Communist activist who is willing to sacrifice his life, along with the lives of his fellow prisoners, in order to hamper the German war effort. This is the conflict that David Denby refers to and considers, correctly in my opinion, to be the film's central focus.
Like Smolianoff, Burger is a real person. He wrote memoirs about his experiences shortly after the war and revised and re-published them, under the title The Devil's Workshop, in the 1970s. The introduction to an interview with Stefan Ryzowitzky, the director of The Counterfeiters (www.cineaste.com/articles/the-counterfeiters.htm), states that "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."
I believe that these examples show that there are consistent and coherent explanations for the ways in which Ryzowitzky adapted source material for his film: quite simply, to tell a better story and to emphasize the difference between the perspectives of Smolianoff/Sorowitsch and Burger. Throughout history, writers have adapted historical events to fit artistic purposes. Another, more extreme, cinematic example is in The Last King of Scotland where the Scottish doctor who befriends Idi Amin is entirely fictional.
These alterations are not on the level of the deceptions of Binjamin Wilkomirski in Fragments or Misha Defonsece in Misha: a Mémoire of the Holocaust Years. Although these books are presented as factual, they have, beyond any reasonably doubt, been exposed as creatures of their writers' imaginations. They present both short-term problems in that they give aid and comfort to those who wish to deny or minimize the Holocaust and more fundamental difficulties in that they lead readers to question the existence of historical truths at any level.
In all of these situations, they are simple solutions. Dramatic renditions of historical events should include explicit statements of what is and is not historically accurate. Fictional narratives should be published as fiction even if such honesty reduces their status as potential best sellers. In these respects, filmmakers, publishers, and editors all share a responsibility with writers.