11.07.2019 in Review

Is it Ethical to Save one’s Own Life Through Deceit?

Through its compelling artistry and challenging content ‘The Counterfeiters’ instigates moral and ethical questions about some life saving tactics employed during the Second World War. One of the tactics used to out maneuver the powerful Nazi Special Police and Gestapo was counterfeiting. The film ‘The Counterfeiters’ is based on how the some Jews’ proficiency in the practice helped save their lives. By and large, counterfeiting is unethical as it involves making a close imitation of an artifact with the intention of defrauding others who may take it as genuine. However, this skill saved Salomon Smolianoff’s life, and possibly saved several Jews who might have been able to escape the horrendous situations in the Nazi controlled Europe.

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The movie “The Counterfeiters” fictionalizes “Operation Bernhard” which was a plan by the Nazi regime in Germany to ruin the economy of Britain by flooding the country with forged banknotes. The scheme took place at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, and it employed some skilled Jewish currency and printing experts who included Adolf Burger, author of the memoir that served as the foundation for this film (John). The film focuses on a Jewish counterfeiter named Salomon Smolianoff who had been apprehended and incarcerated at Mauthausen in 1936 prior his transfer to Sachsenhausen. His transfer yielded unprecedented benefits for the Nazis in their Operation Bernhard as he was a proficient forger whose painting skills were unrivaled. In the movie, his character is playacted by Karl Markovics who is an Austrian stage and television actor by profession.

Salomon Smolianoff was a Russian Jew born in Kremenchuk in 1899. While in Russia, he studied and excelled in painting. In 1922, Salomon and his family left Russia following the Bolsheviks’ takeover of the government (Hugh 68). As he escaped through Europe, he met an Italian girl who he married, moving on to start his family life in Germany. On his arrival to Germany, he met a counterfeiter who influenced him into forgery. He perfected his art of forgery and elusiveness, and by 1939, several European police departments were committed to his arrest. He was arrested by a young German SS officer named Bernhard Kruger in 1939. The SS sent him to the Mauthausen Concentration Camp where the S.S guards made him an artist and portraitist. It was after his selection to take part in Operation Bernhard that the S.S. moved him in 1944 to a concentration camp named Sachsenhausen. Officer Bernhard Kruger would later head Operation Bernhard, and the two would have challenging relations at first (Hans-Michael 88). Eventually, the S.S. transferred him to Mauthausen’s site of Ebensee where among other captives; he was liberated after the US Army stormed the camp in May 1945. After the liberation, he re-adopted his fugitive lifestyle after realizing that the previous charges of counterfeit could still have him incarcerated. However, some people were compassionate for him especially after rumors spread that he had helped forge emigration documents for other Jews who tried to relocate to Palestine. He re-emerged in Uruguay after the Uruguayan police apprehended him for counterfeiting Russian icons. Salomon later relocated to Brazil in 1958 where he spent his final years of his life creating toys and painting portraits.

Operation Bernhard was named after SS- Sturmbannfuhrer Bernhard Kruger who was its director. Kruger had carefully selected a squad of 142 inmate counterfeiters mainly from Sachsenhausen camp. Smolianoff was among them, and he got a chance to befriend Adolf Burger, a Slovak Jew, who had been incarcerated in 1942 after the discovery that he helped forge baptismal documents with the aim of saving Jews from being deported. Adolf Burger had declined to join his family on their immigration to Palestine, and get himself a printing job in Bratislava. By 1942, Slovaks began deporting Jews to German’s concentration camps upon the request of the Nazi regime. However, Adolf was waivered by the government from deportation for being an individual with indispensable skills that could aid the nation’s economy. Following the request of resistive members, he helped forge several baptismal documents for those designated for deportation. In Slovakia, there was a policy that waivered Jews who had been Christians before the start of the second world war from deportation to the German camps. On discovery, Adolf was arrested and deported to Sachsenhausen camp where he met Salomon Smolianoff.

The setting of the film commences in France, soon after the Allies’ victory in the Second World War. It opens with a seemingly German man wordlessly arriving at a casino in Monte Carlo. After booking an expensive suite which he pays for in cash, he indulges in Monte Carlo’s high life, and successfully gambles away a huge sum of money. He then catches the attention of an attractive French woman who later notices that his hand had tattooed numerals which reveals he must have been a survivor of the horrendous concentration camps operated by the Nazis. Then setting shifts to the city of Berlin in 1936 . It characterizes the man, Salomon Smolianoff as a proficient forger of passports and currency which leads to his arrest and incarceration. He is first held at a hard labor camp before his transfer to Mauthausen camp which is near Linz. The devious and manipulative man smartly wins the attention of Mauthausen camp’s guards after turning his skills into portraiture. He is commissioned to paint their portraits and those of their families for him to earn extra meal rations. Through his skills, he secures his own protection at the camp, coupled with meager comforts.

Salomon’s excellent skills catch wider attention which leads to his transfer from the camp, only to meet SS- Sturmbannfuhrer Bernhard Kruger (the man who had arrested him) face-to-face in the city Berlin. Kruger places him, alongside other inmates with printing and artistic skills, at a special section that was devoted to counterfeiting in Sachsenhausen camp (Lee 89). Due to their apparent advantage, the counterfeiters are accorded relatively humane treatment such as provision of a washroom, adequate food, and comfortable bunks. However, as prisoners, they are still subjected to insults and brutality in the hands the S.S. prison guards.

Salomon discovers that his fellow inmates have a wide range of social and ethnic backgrounds from political agitators to Jewish banking managers. Among the counterfeiters, there are some content with working for the Nazi regime which would enable them avoid being exterminated. Nevertheless, there are those that see their engagements as supportive to the Germans’ war campaigns (Moritz 96). The character that the film is based on is faced with complex dilemmas at first. Firstly, he is eager to retain his forgery skills, and this eagerness guides him at first. However, his enthusiasm in forging for the Germans is lowered due to his growing sympathy for his comrades in prison as well as his awareness that his role advances the wider goal of the Nazis. His motivation is further complicated by his eagerness to win professional pride and self esteem after being in a team that would teach him how to forge US dollar (Paul 78). The dollar was a currency he had failed to counterfeit prior his arrest.

Salomon juggles his loyalties towards his fellow inmates, his co-counterfeiters’ attempts to sabotage the entire operation, and the Nazi authorities demand for advancement. The counterfeiters successfully forge the British currency but delays the process of counterfeiting the US dollar. At the climax, slivers of manifestation that the Germans might be losing become clearer with time (Richard 187). A day comes when the guards abruptly announce that the impressing system is to be disassembled and relocated. This announcement makes the counterfeiters worried that they are about to be killed. Before any danger befalls them, the guards flee fearing the advance of the Red Army. Malnourished inmates from other sections of the camp, fortified by the confiscated weapons, seize control then advance into the section that housed the counterfeiters in relative comfort. The insurrectionist attempts to kill the counterfeiters mistaking them to be the SS officers, only to realize that they too are tattooed. They are however forced to account for what lead to their superior treatment.

The setting gets back to Monte Carlo, and Salomon is apparently sickened by his present superfluous life which is facilitated by the huge currency that they had forged to advance Nazism. He intentionally gambles all the money away. The French woman later approaches him as he lonely sits on a bench. As they slowly dance together, the maiden comforts him for the disastrous loss. Laughingly, he replies that it is always possible to make more.

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