The Counterfeiters and The Decalogue

“The Counterfeiters” is a movie about ‘Operation Bernhard’, the largest counterfeiting scam the world has ever witnessed. During the last years of World War II, the Nazis saw that the war was coming to a close, and wanted to flood enemy economies, that of the British and America, with counterfeit money, so that these economies would be destroyed. That was ‘Operation Bernhard’. To achieve this objective, the Nazis brought prisoners to the Sachsenhausen camp,and were put in a sort of a ‘golden cage’, cut off from the rest of the world, where they were provided better facilities – a much softer bed and some good food, to produce the counterfeit money.

After they successfully produce counterfeit British pounds, these prisoners were rewarded with a ping pong table. In one of the most haunting scenes in the movie, as these men play ping pong, they hear gunshots outside their barracks. Men were being tortured and killed outside their golden cage. And what could these prisoners do?

The director of the movie, Stefan Ruzowitzky had this to say about this scene:

‘I feel it’s essentially about modern-day, universal questions. And that’s why I was fascinated by the topic: Is it possible to play ping pong in a concentration camp while a few metres away people are being tortured to death? This is no different than the question: Is it possible to take an all-inclusive vacation to a place where people are starving to death nearby? Is it possible to enjoy our rich, sheltered lives in the face of all the suffering in the world?’

And we actually do all these things. In today’s information age, we could know anything that happens in any corner of the world. We could know, of those mindless shootings of little, innocent school children in America, of the floods that ravaged the states of Uttarakhand and Jammu & Kashmir in India. And closer home, of the gas pipeline blast in the state of Andhra Pradesh in India. In the comfort of our couches, we remain apathetic to all these disasters. It is almost as if, when we witness more and more tragedies, we become more and more hardened, indiferrent, more numb to all the suffering we see around us. And that makes us do all those things Ruzowitzsky asks us if it is possible.

As I kept thinking further, I could also see an irony. We could, in this world, know of anything that happens in any corner of the world. But we don’t, and we don’t try to know the people who live next door. We don’t know what’s going on in their lives, if they had a child, or if there was a celebration recently, a marriage perhaps. Or if someone has died. Or if there had been a robbery. Of the endless possibilities of life. No, we don’t have the time to do that.

I then thought of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s ‘Decalogue’. In this 10 part TV series, which talks about the Ten Commandments in a modern setting, all the stories come from a single apartment setting in Warsaw, Poland. But never, not once, do characters from one episode encounter a character from another. But there is one person, who has no dialogue whatsoever, who silently keeps observing these people. He makes an appearance in each of the episodes, but never does say a word. He is the silent observer, he may be God, or he may simply be the director himself, observing these people and telling us their stories. Or he may even be a storyteller, a novelist perhaps, or a journalist. He is the person who asks these questions, and keeps the world, a saner place to live.

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