Monday, September 20, 2010

The Counterfeit Traitor (1962)

Eric Erickson: When other people hate you it's unfortunate. But when you hate yourself, it's unbearable. ~ The Counterfeit Trader (1962)
The Counterfeit Traitor is a film that intrigued me long before I ever saw it. In the days before home video and cable television, it was difficult to see some of the old classics as often as one might like. One of my mother's favorite films was The Counterfeit Traitor. Since there was no way for us to see it, she would tell us the story so vividly that when I finally did see the film I felt it was for the second time. I had already envisioned the scene in which Lilli Palmer, almost fifty but more beautiful than ever, is being led to her execution, and does not hear Bill Holden calling to her from his prison cell, until he shatters the glass. I already knew how she makes the sign of the cross before the shots ring out. Even before I saw the film I was horrified at how the Gestapo have one of their own masquerade as a priest in order to violate the sanctity of the confessional.

The Counterfeit Traitor is a thriller about a Swedish businessman (Holden) who reluctantly becomes a spy for the Allies. A man with no faith and little principle, he is stunned to find in his fellow spy, Marianna (Palmer), a person of true nobility and heroism. Marianna spies on the Nazis because her conscience tells her she must work against the forces of Antichrist. She finds herself, however, in a moral quandary, concerning both her work and her feelings for Holden. The inner tension magnifies the overall impact of the movie in which the viewer is placed in the middle of a global conflict where good seems destined to be overwhelmed by evil. It was the efforts of those who fought in the hidden arena of espionage who helped to turn the tide.

To quote from DVD Review:
The intelligence community tends to play by their own rules, usually out of necessity. Granted, the environment in which they work does not lend itself to hard and fast rules—it's a dynamic, ever-changing climate. They are expected to complete tasks without considering the repercussions, but certain officials in the field must resort to measures that may not be entirely moral. Sadly, that's the nature of war, and neither side of a conflict is immune to such situations. Does that make it right? This is where utilitarianism comes into the picture; how much wrong can be justified to achieve a good end result?

This is a question that comes to haunt Eric Erickson (William Holden). American born, he has made a comfortable life for himself as a prominent oil magnate in Sweden during WWII. He has resided in Stockholm for years, far before Hitler's rise. Thanks to Sweden's neutrality, he has seen good business from both sides of the war, and has enjoyed a sterile distance provided by such a political position. What he is doing is not illegal, and he seems to have a lack of American loyalty that may stem from years of absence from his country of birth.

When his name appears on a list of Nazi collaborators, his position is suddenly made precarious. Being blacklisted for no good reason may be unsettling enough, but he is met by a British intelligence agent (Hugh Griffith) with a proposition: Help the allies spy, and his name will be taken off. He agrees, and is recorded without his knowledge as insurance in case he changes his mind. An anonymous delivery of the wax cylinder to the Swedish authorities would surely land him in jail. Between a rock and a hard place, Eric is forced to spy. His reasons are initially selfish, but events will change his motivations.

Up until now, he has acted as an opportunist, looking out for his own interests. Change comes with a series of frequent meetings with another agent: The beautiful Marianne (Lilli Palmer), who fights for very different reasons. She is a devout Catholic, and to her, Hitler is the Antichrist. She feels it is her moral duty to risk her life to end his tyranny. Eric does not understand this at first, but after witnessing the brutality of the Nazis firsthand, his information-gathering missions become personal. And so it goes as Eric travels back and forth, gathering intelligence and dodging Gestapo suspicion, until tragedy strikes, and he embarks on a daring, final mission to help those who helped him, at his own risk.

This is a stunning, plot-driven under-the-radar film. Beautifully shot in cities such as Stockholm, Berlin, and Copenhagen (they picked some fine locales), the story is set in the authentic locations. George Seaton's script, adapted from the book by Alexander Klein, is intelligent and manages to capture the many shades of European relations with Nazi Germany from the neutrality of Sweden, to the passive resistance of occupied Denmark, seen through a powerful civilian rebellion when Eric most desperately needs it. Things are by no means black and white here. Seaton makes it clear who the true enemy is, but he does not forget the moral violations of those on the right side, including Eric's intelligence "betters," who enjoy a steady diet of fine cheese and lobster while others risk their lives.
Once again it is shown how one soul who takes a stand can influence others for the better. Marianna is by no means a flawless heroine but through her Eric becomes the hero he is meant to be. Share


Agnes B Bullock said...

I saw this movie during the early part of this century, and was struck by the strength of the female leads faith. I tried to copy it on a tape, but naturally it did not take. I had wanted to use it to demonstrate the strenght of thje confessional and the abuses of it by others. One of my favorite movies and glad to see it on DVD!

Matterhorn said...

"Even before I saw the film I was horrified at how the Gestapo have one of their own masquerade as a priest in order to violate the sanctity of the confessional."

This actually happened to the Belgian royal family when imprisoned in Germany in 1944. The King and his wife figured out what was going on, but the King, who had an ironic sense of humor, decided to play along for fun, and let the "priest" ask him all sorts of indiscreet questions. At the last minute, however, when the fellow was going to give him "absolution," King Leopold interrupted him with the words: "You're not a priest."

Dymphna said...

The execution scene where the camera shows Mariana's torn fingernails stayed with me.

Julygirl said...

The sacrifice and courage of one person has a ripple effect that goes on to influence the moral courage of many others who hear of it for years to come.