One of the things that works in the film is that the moral ambiguity is egalitarian. You question not only what Major Bernhard Krüger is doing but you question what the men in the camp are doing.
Which makes them more human. If it's only flawless victims - which is tempting to do because you feel for those poor Jews - but, still, I think it works much better if you show that a crook like Sally does not deserve to be put into and possibly killed in a concentration camp. For me, that was an important statement to make. I tried to balance it as well as possible. Not to say that there's a right way and a wrong way. I have Sally as a pragmatic person and Burger's movie character, the big idealist, in both ways proves to be sometimes right, sometimes wrong. The idealist, he's ready to die for his ideals but he's also ready to let others die for his ideals, which might be a problem. [Laughs.]
We had a screening in New York and there was an elderly couple, immigrants from Cuba, who said, "We recognized him after one minute!" As a Communist/Stalinist, in a way, with his attitude. So the idea was to balance that. Because I don't think there is the right way to behave in a situation like that. This is something I learned from doing research and reading a lot of autobiographies. They all agree that it was so difficult in the camps to do the right thing and, if you wanted to do the right thing, often it led to catastrophe and disaster because the whole system was so perverted. It was outspoken by Himmler and the Nazis that the idea was that in the camps the inmates should torture one another with the Nazis overwatching this whole system where inmates would have absolute power of life and death over other inmates and would make use of that.
Clearly, in a situation as extreme as the concentration camps, there were all sorts of contradictory forces and incentives going on. One of the film's most effective subplots for me was Salomon's creative desire to create the perfect American dollar bill. I appreciated how his taking that on as an artistic challenge was, in a sense, a survival technique. Was he bad for wanting to be such a great counterfeiter?
[Laughs.] It's funny, if you're talking with Adolf Burger - he's 110% anti-Fascist and, as I said before, it's his mission in life to tell the story and accuse the Nazis - but when he starts to talk about the dollar, he's so proud of what they achieved! Even the Bank of England thought these counterfeit American dollars were genuine. He's a craftsman. He's a printer with all of his heart. I tried to somehow get that spirit in the movie and to capture the sense of The Bridge Over the River Kwai. Even Burger nowadays forgets about the context in which these bank notes were produced; he's just proud as a craftsman in what he achieved.
Do any of those counterfeit dollars still exist?
I imagine, then, they're quite valuable as collectors items.
Returning to your working with Burger on the script, it's my understanding that he didn't approve anything until at least the third draft. Is that true?
No. It was the normal process. If you're working with authentic material, the first draft is usually very close to the actual chain of events. Then you start to discuss it with script doctors and other people and you have to get away, to a certain extent, from the historical details and make a working screenplay out of it. Therefore, Burger always liked best the first draft, which was very close to the actual chain of events, and he always said, "Why can't we do the first draft? It was the best! Why do we have to do all these changes?" [Laughs.] Now, when asked, he will say, "This is not a documentary. There are documentaries about the counterfeiter workshops; this is a feature film, but overall it's truthful."
He's come to understand the cinematic approach to history that's requisite to making it accessible to audiences?
We've been truthful to the historic truth. The changes we've made have not manipulated the past. There was this one day where Burger and a second counterfeiter who is still alive, the opera singer Plappler, were visiting the set and right away they started arguing whether Krüger was a murderer or a lifesaver. Burger was saying, "He's responsible for the killing of six of our friends," and Plappler saying, "If it hadn't have been for him, all 147 of us would be dead." Which is probably true as well. There is no one historical truth; there are many. If we were to tell the story according to Plappler, it would have been another movie.
My understanding is that the most significant departure from historical veracity is the film's ending?
Yes, because in the very last days of the war the Nazis moved the whole counterfeiters workshop to Austria, to the Alps, to the place which was as far away as possible from the Russian army advancing from the East and the American army advancing from the West. They wanted to continue with this process; but it was already too late. Actually, the plan was to execute the counterfeiters, but then there was chaos and the German army started to dissolve. There was a strange situation that all 140 counterfeiters were all in the SS camp that was close to the concentration camp in Austria. Then, as I said before, the army dissolved. They didn't know what was going on. The camp had already been taken over by the inmates.
So the counterfeiters felt that the safest place to go was the concentration camp, which was their people, while at the SS camp there was the threat that some of the SS officers might shoot them. So the counterfeiters went to the concentration camp and wanted to get in but the inmates there said, "No, we don't believe you are inmates yourselves because you're looking so good." At that point, this scene happened - which I have in the movie - where the counterfeiters had to prove to the inmates that they were not Nazis before they were allowed to enter the concentration camp. It worked better to have this confrontation with the outside at Sachsenhausen. It would have been like another movie if they had entered a train and been taken somewhere else.
I understand. My final question, since I need to wrap here, concerns your current project of Hexe Lilli (Lilli the Witch), which seems like such a departure from The Counterfeiters!
It's based on a book series that is very popular in Germany and Spain. It's mainly for young girls, age 6-10. As I have two girls between 6 and 10 living in my house [chuckles], it makes sense. I found out my girls love these books and so I thought, "Why not?" It's very helpful having kids actually that age so you know what they think is funny and what they think is childish and what's important for them. This has been very helpful writing the script and directing it. Also, one of the consequences was that my children now know what I'm actually doing for a living. Before, they had no idea and here they were allowed to visit the set and they're in some scenes as extras.
Sweet! So now they realize you create truth and magic.
Well, I wish you the very best with that project and at the Academy Awards.
Thank you very much.
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