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Crystal Downing

The Drowned and the Saved

Last year's Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film is a study in gray.

As our economy struggles to keep its head above water, recriminations abound. Some blame the avarice of media-controlled consumers living beyond their means; others indict mortgage lenders who exploited consumer dreams; many focus on the capitalist greed of Wall Street moguls who padded their life jackets with millions before allowing their companies to bob in barrels at the top of financial falls. All, of course, are complicit, having collectively floated through calm waters without taking heed of the Niagra-like devastation ahead. Americans at all economic levels and in both political parties have been counterfeiting financial stability for over a decade.

Complicity and counterfeiting inform a recent film about a government plan to intentionally drown the American economy. Winner of the 2008 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, The Counterfeiters tells a fictional story based on the memoir of Adolf Burger, a Slovak Jew placed in a special ward of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in 1942. Along with other Jews who had paper-making, engraving, banking, or printing-press skills, Burger was compelled to manufacture British pounds and American dollars that the Germans planned to pour into Allied countries in order to devastate their economies.

Granted special favors—ample food, comfortable beds, hot showers, fresh toiletries—these Jews aided an enemy decimating their race. Counterfeiting in more ways than one, they illustrate what Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi called "the grey zone of collaboration." In The Drowned and the Saved, Levi says of his Holocaust experience, "the enemy was all around but also inside[;] the 'we' lost its limits."

The Counterfeiters, then, is about the complexity of defining the "we." Focusing on tensions among the counterfeiting Jews themselves, it dissolves easy distinctions between victims and perpetrators of evil. Doing so, the film distinguishes itself from many cinematic portrayals of Nazi atrocities, which manifest what Levi ...

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