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The Counterfeit Traitor

The Counterfeit Traitor
Paramount Home Entertainment
1962 / Color / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 140 min. / Street Date July 13, 2004 / 14.99
Starring William Holden, Lilli Palmer, Hugh Griffith, Carl Raddatz, Ernst Schröder, Charles Régnier, Ingrid van Bergen, Helo Gutschwager, Wolfgang Preiss, Werner Peters, Erica Beer, Stefan Schnabel, Klaus Kinski, Eva Dahlbeck
Cinematography Jean Bourgoin
Production Designer Ellen Schmidt
Art Direction Tambi Larsen, Mathias Matthies, Hal Pereira
Film Editors Hans Ebel, Alma Macrorie
Costumes Edith Head
Original Music Alfred Newman
Written by George Seaton, Charles Grenzbach from a novel by Alexander Klein
Produced by William Perlberg
Directed by George Seaton

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 is.

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:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
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!"

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

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