Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
By 1961 fact-based WW2 dramas had waned in favor of increasingly escapist adventures in a war setting,
like The Guns of Navarone. Historic spy epics such as The Man Who Never Was and Carve
Her Name with Pride were thinning out and the first inklings of James Bond were being heard. When
the Cold War fantasies of 007 took over, war and spy stories no longer needed an historical basis.
Seaton and Perlberg's The Counterfeit Traitor is one of their better efforts, a sincere attempt
to deal fairly with political complexities that the movie-going audience avoided. Here
WW2 is seen from a fresh point of view that subverts the usual portrayals of patriotism and heroism.
Our hero is a Swedish-American who has given up American citizenship (what?!), regularly deals with
the Nazis from his neutral company (what?!!) and begins his espionage career as the unwilling dupe
of ruthless English agents.
The Counterfeit Traitor is also an early representation of the mundane horrors of Nazi rule and
the equally bland methods used by spies to fight it. It helps to counter the overwhelming number of
escapist thrillers in which bumbling Germans are easily hoodwinked by handsome agents who spend
their time kissing fraüleins in between their sabotage missions.
Swedish Oil Dealer Eric Erickson (William Holden) is half-blackmailed into becoming a British
agent, and uses his trips to Germany to promote a fake refinery deal to collect intelligence against the
Germans. Erickson is forced to alienate friends and his wife and he blackmails German associates to work for
him. He falls in love with his dedicated contact Frau Marianne Möllendorf (Lilli Palmer) and through
her learns the value of his work. But how long can Eric keep up his deception?
The makers claim that The Counterfeit Traitor is a true story, and excepting a couple of
conveniently-placed dramatic highlights, it probably is. Eric Erickson is played by a perfectly
toned-down William Holden in serious mode. His sincere but practical businessman doesn't respond
to the propaganda of either side until he witnesses for himself a Nazi atrocity, an impromptu
public hanging at a factory.
The hanging refuses to hype the incident and as such is the film's key scene. In old propaganda efforts
like Edge of Darkness Nazi depradations were presented as crimes against man and God, and
more often than not answered by instant retribution that provided a wish-fulfilling release for the
emotions of the audience. The progressive Counterfeit shows the hanging in longshot, from a
clinical distance that wouldn't be fully examined until Schindler's List and
The Pianist. Holden can do nothing;
the Nazis prevail by showing their willingness to casually kill. Neither the poor protesting victim nor the
cruel German officer is shown in closeup, so we can't project our emotions onto individuals. It's
very effective; the restraint says "This happened, you make up your own mind about it." 1
The Counterfeit Traitor hasn't a big budget but it was filmed in Sweden, Germany and Denmark
with appropriately European actors. The biggest surprise for 1961 audiences was the film's neutral
protrayal of Germans as ordinary people, even, to a degree, a Gestapo officer. Being German or
English previously insured a certain treatment of characterizations. The Deutsches were invariably
ideologues and degenerates (except for saintly, cultured members of the resistance) and the Englanders noble
and self-sacrificing patriots with a faintly aristocratic bearing. In Counterfeit the English
spymasters are ruthless and even callous in pursuit of their goals. The German friends Erickson
eventually exploits are "loyal Nazis" mainly because
being otherwise would be ruinous to their lives and those they love. Erickson succeeds because the
worst of his contacts, a Gestapo Colonel (Wolfgang Preiss), comes to his aid out of loyalty and
trust. He isn't your standard Nazi goon.
The large cast makes room for a range of personalities reacting to Germany in different ways.
There are some goonish types - like the prison warder played by Reinhard Kolldehoff
(Soldier of Orange) or the eager-beaver
weasel beautifully sketched by Werner Peters (the wonderful Mistelswieg of
The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, which
also starred Wolfgang Preiss). The oilmen encountered by Erickson display a range of ethical responses,
including one diplomat that Holden has wisely compromised. With five or six people blackmailed into
helping him, Erickson's risk factor is pretty steep. Any any moment one of them could spill the beans.
The Counterfeit Traitor raises an idea I'd never heard of before, that there were influential
Germans who traded information with the allies for assurances of safety from reprisals after the war.
In the film, a nervous oilman (with a suspicious Hitler-Youth son with a nose for
traitors) insists upon a document proving his cooperation. I wonder how many high-ranking SS officers
and Nazi officials were kept safe from the hangman or whisked out of the country (sometimes with
plundered booty) because of backroom deals. Is that an unreasonable thought?
Seaton's script has good dialogue and handles the emotional end of the story well. Lilli Palmer is
strongly associated with wartime spy films
(Cloak and Dagger) and
Operation Crossbow) and is entirely convincing as a deeply-hidden allied agent. Her faked
romantic overtures to Holden are a beautiful match to his best come-on smiles; they meet
at a party crowded with Nazi brass and we get a strong impression of just how risky their situation
Between his personal experience with Nazi methods and his empathy with Lilli Palmer's conscience-driven
subversion, Erickson learns to appreciate the scope of the evil he's opposing. Their love relationship
ends in a trauma drained of hope or uplift, which is also unusually honest for the time.
The treatment of Jews is a bit more calculated but is still remarkable for 1961. While in prison
Erickson sees a Jewish couple being herded down a forbidding staircase, without further explanation.
The lack of an emotional climax (after the real climax, the execution) is countered with the short boat
hop from Denmark to Sweden, hiding a sick Jewish refugee played by Klaus Kinski. 2
The film comes closest to cliché when a search party boards the boat; but Seaton undercuts
expectations by having a sympathetic German officer look the other way. He's not a closeted
resistance guy or a Christian dissenter, just an ordinary German. Now that's pretty fair.
The best touch of all is Erickson's relationship with an old Swedish friend who is Jewish. Erickson
isn't bothered when his wife (Eva Dahlbeck) leaves him because of his new pro-Nazi sentiments; but
he's deeply troubled to have to publicly denounce this very nice man in the interest of establishing
his credentials with the Germans. This is the kind of sacrifice that "heroic" war movies never show;
Erickson is willing to let himself be thought a Judas in order to do something good.
In spite of the authentic locations and casting The Counterfeit Traitor isn't all perfection;
the hairstyles and costumes are not very good. Most 1960s movies had little sense of period recreation
or retro style for stories set just twenty years before.
Everyone wears double-breasted suits but that's about it - all the fabrics look too modern and few
people wear hats. Edith Head was in charge of costumes, but it looks as if she were just responsible
for Lilli Palmer's party dresses.
The Counterfeit Traitor is one of those unkillable stories that if played straight and honest can't
help but be a good picture. George Seaton's direction is never more than serviceable, but it
doesn't get in the way of his superior script either. It's one of those films that can look sloppy on television,
but very impressive when presented well.
Paramount's DVD of The Counterfeit Traitor is a fine transfer of this television perennial.
The enhanced image frames the compositions much better than the old TV prints and the color is
near-perfect almost all the time, showcasing the many scenes shot at real locales. The "bicycle rescue"
of Holden on the streets of Copenhagen looks particularly good.
There are no extras, but the quality transfer is value enough. It made for an entertaining and
thought-provoking home-theater viewing experience.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Counterfeit Traitor rates:
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 11, 2004
1. Wartime propaganda
movies have their good side, but George Orwell recognized in their appeal to emotions the basis for the
"5 Minute Hate" televised rallies in his book 1984. The authorities callously invent a fantasy with
abominable villains (the enemy) and a faultless paternal savior (Big Brother). Visual montages of
faked outrages by the evil traitors work the audience into such a violent pitch that
they cheer images of "enemy" women and children being machinegunned from the air.
There's a lot
of this kind of mindless football-cheer aggression and hate in coverage of our present war, which
is being waged on two fronts - the real fighting in Iraq, and the media circus of images and ideas
that boils over with lies and distortions. Of course, our "5 minute hates" are more like "30 second
sells," as befitting the commercial nature of our culture. Remember, "Navy Seals ROCK! Let's go give
Saddam his wake-up call!" Return
2. It seems that actor Kinski got himself hired on just about every notable European
film with an international release. He must have been highly in demand, or had a terrific agent! Probably both.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson