Provost's Film Series
April 19, 2011
Introduction by Daniel Johnson
Good fences make good neighbors, or so the proverb goes. Yet a proverb like this is not above being questioned, as Robert Frost pointed out long ago in “Mending Wall.” Strolling beside a tumbled stone barrier in his New Hampshire apple orchard, Frost took issue with the sentiment when it was voiced by his own neighbor. "Something there is that doesn't love a wall, that wants it down," the poet gently observed.
From our own vantage point, a single blood-soaked century later, we might have something more to say about the matter. While fences may indeed make good neighbors, we have learned the hard way that they can make even better enemies. In South Korea and South Africa, Berlin and Belfast, Palestine and beyond, we have seen how such barriers can deepen enmities between people groups, turn erstwhile neighbors into the fiercest of foes, and effectively dehumanize entire populations.
No twentieth-century regime is more identified with this politics of segregation than Nazi Germany. It is fitting, then, Stefan Ruzowitzki’s Academy Award-winning film The Counterfeiters should be, at least in part, a study in the power of fences.
The story is based on the true account of a group of Jews in a Nazi concentration camp who are pressed to serve the German war effort by producing counterfeit foreign currencies. Saloman “Sally” Sorowitsch and his team of counterfeiters dwell in relative security within their private little ghetto inside the Sachsenhausen prison camp. The high wooden fencing that separates them from the rest of the camp is enough to preserve two precious secrets. The first concerns the counterfeiting operation itself, part of a Reich plan to destabilize the British and American economies through massive infusions of free floating cash. The second concerns the privileges that the team enjoys as a result of their compliance: music, pingpong, champagne, and civilian clothes, for those who can bear them. Oh, and the tacit understanding that they will not be shot on a whim (unless, of course, someone gets sick). So well-preserved is the secret of the life that Sally and his team lead that it almost proves their undoing in the end.
Islands of Self-Preservation
Of course, a wooden fence cannot stop bullets. Still less can it stop the reports of gunfire as they echo throughout the camp. The counterfeiters know full well what happens elsewhere in Sachsenhausen, but they find themselves marooned on an island of self-preservation, if not downright indifference. Sometimes, however, even a fence is not enough to keep a man’s conscience at bay. And this, too, may be to the team's undoing in the end.
Yet it is the fences that are not so often seen in the film, such as those that separate the prisoners from their Nazi oppressors, that may be the most significant. The fiendish perimeter fences that have become emblems of the death camps and the worldview that sustained them are generally outside the field of view, for the audience as well as for the characters themselves. Indeed, the relationships between Sally's team and those who stand over them are frequently familiar and casual enough to make the barrier between them seem permeable. This constitutes a grave threat to the self-understandings of those who dominate. Small wonder, then, that they should regularly engage in symbolic efforts to mark that divide, to remind everyone of exactly which sides of the fence they belong on.
Ultimately, the SS officer may well find in himself the same instinct for self-preservation that he so despises in Sally and the other "vermin" he has imprisoned. But he simply cannot abide the suggestion that they may actually be equals. Those fences that so neatly ordered his world may be falling down all around him, but the invidious distinctions that they had erected in his mind would stand firm. It will finally be up to Sally, of all people, to decide whether they too should fall, whether he and his oppressor in fact still share a common humanity.