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The Counterfeiters, directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky.

A German movie about Jewish prisoners counterfeiting Allied currencies has uncomfortable modern implications for the modern currency crisis.

-- Ben Burrows

The Austrian movie, The Counterfeiters, was based on Adolf Burger’s 1990 autobiographical memoir about his experiences in World War II. The book was conceived as a response to the Holocaust denial sweeping across Europe. Since the book’s publication (apparently only in German), Burger has told his story to audiences in personal appearances across Germany. Burger trained as a printer, was recruited at Auschwitz to aid in a counterfeiting scheme – first to create fake British banknotes, and later to forge American currency. The object of the ruse was to flood the world with phony Allied currency to cause a crisis of financial confidence.

The 140 members of the counterfeiting team received unusually good treatment, both with better and more plentiful food than the starvation gruel provided to most death camp prisoners, with hygienic dormitory facilities, and (once) even with rare antibiotics. The British banknotes were apparently such good forgeries, that they were vetted by Swiss bankers, and turned into cash for the Nazi war machine, in the late stages of the war. The overwhelming sense of betrayal and guilt which the prisoners bore against themselves revealed itself in suicidal depression, in violent internal confrontations, and in delay and sabotage to the “dollar” project. Anyone seeing this movie would not propose a dichotomy between “bitter” and “resilient” – as Hillary Clinton commented in her Philadelphia debate some weeks ago at the Constitution Center.

Two German film producers, Babette Schröder and Nina Bohlmann, read the memoir six years ago and saw its potential. They approached Burger about adapting it, and also reached out to Austrian director Stefan Ruzowitzky, who saw the universal metaphor in Burger’s story.

“Asking whether people should play table tennis in a concentration camp while others around them are being tortured is the same as asking whether we should be allowed to live such affluent lives when there is so much suffering in the world,” Ruzowitzky told Deutsche Welle.

The parallels between the desperate Nazis, as they hurtled toward military and economic defeat, and the throes of the Bush Administration, in the midst of its own financial meltdown as the American people abandon Bush’s Iraq war of choice, is probably a moral exaggeration. Yet one cannot avoid the odd echoes between forging bank notes, with the fraudulent AAA ratings for mortgage backed securities as all too cooperative investment rating services colluded with unscrupulous mortgage brokers desperately attempting to generate profits out of whole cloth.

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