“Now the Jews are Gone”

Die Presse (03/25/2007)

New Films on NS past from Austria: “Vienna’s Lost Daughters” and “The Counterfeiter”

The pictures are uncannily modern when Eva Testor’s camera whizzes through the enormous city chasms of New York: This metropolis doesn’t remain anonymous because a few cuts later Rosalie, born in Vienna, sits together with her Ecuadorian hairdresser, Michael, and talks about people they know and foreigners in general. She is one of Vienna’s eight ‘lost daughters,’ whom film director, Mirjam Unger, tracked down in the New World. The recipe is familiar: Many local documentaries have focused on people who were forced to flee from NS terror. There is also the question hanging over Unger’s solid work: What if these women had stayed?

One possible answer is offered by Stefan Ruzowitzky’s drama, The Counterfeiter, about a concentration camp, in which Karl Markovics should help the Nazis with making counterfeit money. The German-Austrian co-production works its way through the question of to what extent a Jew can be complicit in the Holocaust: Salomon Sorowitsch, a clever counterfeiter, forged documents for fugitives until he is held by Captain Herzog and comes into the concentration camp of Mauthausen. After five years he is transferred to Sachsenhausen where Herzog oversees a project of counterfeit money and names Sorowitsch to become its head. Thus, Ruzowitzky instigates a debate on ethics, not only between film and viewer but also between the protagonists themselves. Next to Markovic’s intial figure of a man with a glib winning streak, the leftist anit-Nazi activist, Burger (August Diehl) and Zilinski (Andreas Schmidt) come off as taking extreme positions within the narrative. Zilinski would have no problem financing the Nazis’ final victory with counterfeit dollars should his life be saved: Ideologies and concepts held by individuals and the collective group clash.

Foreign in One’s Own Country
As if an answer to Zilinski’s cowardliness, one woman in Unger’s documentary observes, “The average person doesn’t think.” A number of women live with fragments of memory: Viennese songs on LP records, Sachertorte in the oven, and photos and documents in cardboard boxes. Others refuse to speak German because the memories are too painful. Many have been back to Austria. Patterns tend to repeat themselves. And one comments on her visit to Vienna: “Now the Jews are gone; now they have other foreigners.”

In Ruzowitzky’s work, good and evil are interchangeable. The Counterfeiter is a film with various levels of grey: The main figures, Sorowitsch and Herzog, become closer, and recognize their similarities. Both ignore their moral convictions and both survive National Socialism by doing so. Identities are not called for. The one loses his individuality by taking on the Fascist uniform; the other acquires the clothing of the Jews in the concentration camp who have been already murdered. Ruzowitzky sums up his basic question: How is it to live on the backs of others? His arguments are increasingly moralistic, and the film’s line of attack is unpleasant, self-congratulatory and arrogant. At the end of war, the Jews living in the “real” concentration camp don’t know whether behind the veneer the comparatively well-nourished Jews are friend or enemy.

Unger’s film closes with the eight women leaving on a trip together for Vienna: They stroll leisurely through their former homeland, reflecting now as tourists on the city’s landmarks, but see, however, only that which was – the city’s panorama seen from the Ferris wheel becomes a diorama of horror. Vienna was seldom so dreary: Some lost themselves and the others lost in addition their life of familiarity and all things dear in order to survive. The lost daughters return and cry. Forgetting is an illusion, a deception, created in order to be able to move on.