The Counterfeiters, a film about the biggest money forging operation ever committed, reminds one of Edgar Allen Poe's short story "The purloined letter," or rather, Jacques Lacan's famous analysis of it.
The film (Die Falscher in German) is set in a Nazi concentration camp at Sachsenhausen, where a convicted Jewish currency forger is coerced into producing millions of fake pounds and dollars which will boost the Nazis' resources and flood the British and American economies. The dilemma is obvious: the Jewish forger, Sorowitsch, can comply with the deadly order and survive or refuse and be killed. The themes of the film - betrayal and deception - recur rather in the way that the themes of "The purloined letter" - theft and concealment - are repeated.
In Poe's story, the letter begins in the hands of the queen, and we are given to understand that if its contents (which we never discover) are revealed, the queen's situation will become very precarious. When the scheming Minister D enters the royal boudoir with the king to carry out the business of the day, the startled queen chooses to hide the letter in the most visible place possible, playing upon the king's inattentiveness. The Minister spots the queen's duplicity, and swaps the letter with another taken from his pocket. The queen sees what he has done, but is in no position to protest. A Police Prefect is tasked with locating the letter but, after searching the Minister's hotel-room with a fine tooth-comb, cannot do so. The Prefect, baffled by his failure, calls upon Monsieur Dupin, who assures the Prefect (with more than a note of mystique) that he can locate the letter immediately without a sophisticated police search. The Prefect promises him a handsome reward if he can realise his boast.
Dupin visits the Minister's room and, after a brief search, finds the letter "hidden" in a card rack, quite out in the open. A day later, pretending he left a snuff-box in the Minister's hotel, Dupin takes the letter and collects his reward.
Just like in Hitchcock's Vertigo, the story consists of two identical scenarios repeated, but since the players in the act change, its significance also alters. The content of the letter does not change, but its signification is unstable. Its meaning depends entirely upon "the symbolic system within which it is constantly displaced." Roles within the symbolic system change as the letter changes hands, so that the queen's position switches from empowered recipient to vulnerable victim of a theft ; and the Minister's moves from sly political operator to Dupin's fool. Here the story ends, but we see no reason why Dupin's position of power should be maintained indefinitely. The act is destined to be repeated.
The forged money in The Counterfeiters plays a similar role to the letter in Poe's story. Its value, its meaning, and our judgement of the forger Sorowitcsh, depend upon the system within which he works. At the beginning of the film, we see Sorowitsch as a playboy enjoying (for all his Jewishness) life in Nazi Germany. We might frown upon his criminal activities, and hope that he loses the ambivalence to anti-semitism which he shows before he is arrested and sent to the concentration camp (such are our own prejudices), but we approve of his criminality because it occurs in Nazi Germany and is thus subversive.
But when he is ordered to continue forging money under the orders of Sturmbannfuhrer Herzog, our opinion of the situation changes entirely. Now Sorowitsch is making money for the Nazis, in order to save his own skin. Before, money meant Sorowitsch could live the life of riley. Now it means he can survive. It also means others like him will be killed. Its meaning is entirely ambiguous, for we cannot decide what we might do in his position.
When Burger, a political activist whose wife is still at Auschwitz, tries to sabotage Sorowitsch's efforts, in order to slacken the Nazis' momentum, the meaning of the money changes again. Burger reveals its wider significance, the network of exchange through which it passes. He tries to force his fellow prisoners to see that the fruits of their labours are funding the annihilation of people like them. The prisoners now see that the money is the cause of death ; their survival will hasten their own extermination.
Traditional semiology distinguishes between a signifier (a word) and a signified (the 'thing' which the word describes). The signifier is therefore a means to accessing the meaning of something. By describing a thing through language, we discover its meaning.
But as we see, the money in The Counterfeiters is not easily described. Though its content does not change, its significance alters dramatically : from the life of riley, to the means of survival, to bringer of death. What matters is not its content, but its place in a system.
Of course, unlike the purloined letter, the situation of the money within a symbolic system cannot oscillate indefinitely, for the continuity of the system has been disrupted. In the terminology of social semiotics, the "dialogical chain" has been cut. In Nazi Germany, language no longer carries the values, beliefs, desires and ideologies of society, because the Nazi ideology is absolute annihilation. Auto-annihilation was an inherent part of the Nazi credo. In Mein kampf, Hitler had envisaged that early marriages would reduce sexual infection. But all marriage must have one over-arching objective : "to serve a higher goal : the preservation of the race." The Third Reich would be a state where only the strongest survive, "where one creature feeds on the other and where the death of the weaker implies the life of the stronger."
It is only after late 1942, when the German campaign falters and momentum shifts to the Allies, that this fatal and suicidal logic is cut. The prisoners at Sachsennhausen do not behave heroically, because they cannot. They can only delay, wait and hope.