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The Counterfeit Traitor

by Glenn Erickson May 17, 2022

George Seaton connected an ideal cast to this true-life WW2 story so good that a lazy script and slack direction can’t sink it. William Holden is the American-Swede who spies for the Allies, ruining his own reputation and schmoozing with Nazis that will kill him if he slips up. Wonderful Lilli Palmer is the patriot-agent who steals his heart. The locations are impressive but one inspired scene captures with perfection the utter depravity of fascist power. If ever a WW2 movie needed a remake, this one qualifies.


The Counterfeit Traitor
Region-free Blu-ray
Viavision [Imprint] 118
1962 / Color / 1:78 widescreen / 141 min. / Street Date April 27, 2022 / Available from /
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 Directors: Hal Pereira, Tambi Larsen, Mathias Matthies
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

For many moviegoers The Counterfeit Traitor was the first ‘adult’ drama to attempt to express the moral complexity on the fringes of the ‘good/bad’ conflict of WW2. Neutral countries continued to do business with both sides, and in some cases fudged the rules of neutrality. My relatives by marriage told me stories of Axis/Allied spy shenanigans in a South American port during WW2 — they were thrilling, and happened to people I met and loved.

By 1961 fact-based WW2 dramas had waned in favor of increasingly escapist adventures in a war setting, like The Guns of Navarone. History- based spy epics such as Five Fingers, The Man Who Never Was (it’s just been remade) and Carve Her Name with Pride were thinning out and James Bond was knocking at the door. Cold War fantasies no longer needed an historical basis.

George Seaton and William Perlberg’s The Counterfeit Traitor is one of their better efforts, a sincere attempt to present political complexities that war movies usually 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?!) and has been working oil deals with the Nazis for years. He begins his espionage career only because of a blackmail effort by an English spymaster.

 

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 downtime between sabotage missions kissing willing fraüleins.

Collins (Hugh Griffith), a charming but ruthless English agent in Stockholm, blackmails Swedish Oil Dealer Eric Erickson (William Holden) into spying for the Allies. Erickson uses his trips to Germany to promote a fake refinery deal to collect war information — the locations of new German synthetic fuel refineries, etc. He also recruits his friends, essentially blackmailing them as well, even though one associate Baron Oldenburg (Ernst Schröder) is sympathetic. Erickson can’t tell anyone. He must offend a Jewish friend Max Gumpel (Ulf Palme) in public, and isn’t surprised when his wife Ingrid (Eva Dahlbeck) leaves him. His dedicated contact in elite German society turns out to be a beautiful upperclass subversive, Frau Marianne Möllendorf (Lilli Palmer). Each is already married but their liaisons are accepted because neither had a past record of faithfulness. Through Marianne Eric learns more fully the value of his work. He’s protected by powerful Nazi friends, like the influential Col. Nordoff (Wolfgang Preiss), who even vouches for Eric when little suspicious arise. But how long can he maintain his deception?

 

The filmmakers claim that The Counterfeit Traitor is a true story, and much of it probably is. Some but not all of the more dramatic episodes appear to be embellished. Eric Erickson is played by a perfectly toned-down William Holden in serious mode. His sincere but practical businessman at first doesn’t respond to the propaganda of either side. Then he witnesses for himself a Nazi atrocity, an impromptu public hanging at a factory.

The hanging is the film’s key scene, the one viewers are likely to remember in a movie with lots of talk, secret deals and careful behavior on the part of the cautious spies. In old propaganda efforts like Edge of Darkness Nazi crimes against man and God were often answered by instant retribution, providing an emotional release for the audience. The progressive Counterfeit shows its hanging in a longshot, from a coldly clinical distance that wouldn’t be fully examined until Schindler’s List and The Pianist.

Neither the poor protesting victim nor the cruel German officer is shown in close- up, so we can’t project our emotions onto individuals. Eric Erickson witnesses from a window but can do nothing. The Nazis prevail by showing their willingness to casually kill; the victim’s colleagues have no choice but to get back to work. It’s very effective; the restraint says “This happened, you must make up your own mind about it.” The superior wartime thriller The Silver Fleet dealt with this problem of slave labor. Its producers Powell & Pressburger didn’t expect workers in occupied countries to resist their captors — a shipbuilder (Ralph Richardson) must put his own life on the line to prevent mass reprisals against his workforce.

 

The Counterfeit Traitor does not look cheap. It was filmed in Sweden, Germany and Denmark and is cast with talented European actors. It may seem odd now, but in 1962 the film’s biggest surprise for U.S. audiences was the protrayal of Germans as ordinary people, even, to a degree, a Gestapo officer. In almost everything we saw the Deutsches were invariably ideologues and degenerates, except for saintly, cultured members of the resistance. The English were more often than not noble and self-sacrificing patriots, whether aristocratic or common. In Counterfeit the English spymasters are sometimes callous in pursuit of their goals. The German friends Erickson must exploit 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, the Gestapo Colonel played by Wolfgang Preiss, comes to his aid out of personal 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 Devil Strikes at Night and the wonderful Mistelswieg of The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (which also starred Wolfgang Preiss). With five or six people sort-of-voluntarily 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 eager to provide the Allies with sensitive information, to obtain assurances of safety from postwar reprisals. One nervous oil merchant insists upon being given a document proving his cooperation. I wonder how many high-ranking SS officers and Nazi officials were kept safe from the hangman through backroom deals, and whisked out of the country, maybe even with their plundered booty?  Is that an unreasonable thought?  This particular oil dealer has a ten year-old son in the Hitler Youth (Helo Gutschwager), who is more dangerous to Ericson than anybody — he’s observant and highly suspicious.

Seaton’s script lacks a strong structure, but it has good dialogue and handles the emotional end of the story well. Lilli Palmer is strongly associated with other wartime spy films from 1946 (Cloak and Dagger) to 1965 Operation Crossbow). She’s entirely convincing as a well-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, where everybody is observing everybody and every fourth guest is likely a security plant. We get a strong impression of just how risky their situation is. Completely atypical for the genre before the John Le Carre era, the love relationship of Eric and Marianne ends in a trauma drained of hope or uplift. It was a real shock in 1962 and certainly not expected.

 

The treatment of Jews is also fairly remarkable for 1961. While in prison Erickson sees a Jewish couple being herded down a forbidding staircase, without further explanation. The best touch of 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; to do good Erickson must be willing to become a Judas. The audio commentary on the disc tells us that this aspect of Counterfeit is accurate: after being humiliated in public, Max Gumpel sent Eric a note guessing that he had a good reason for doing what he did, and pledging his trust just the same.

Unfortunately, some of the story construction and most of the direction fail to optimize Counterfeit’s impact. After an emotional climax in Moabit Prison, the movie stumbles on for another 20 minutes with a standard ‘daring escape’ storyline in an active underground network. Erickson hides out in Red Light district — a good opportunity for racy stills, there. Then we get a last-minute bit of emotional tension reminding us of Holocaust issues — Eric is smuggled out of occupied Denmark on a fishing boat, along with a sickly Jewish fugitive . . . Klaus Kinski!  They are saved through an intervention that’s consistent with Denmark’s official wartime record vis a vis persecuted Jews. If it’s true, the whole country ought to have a halo over it.

Klaus Kinski has ‘looking deathly ill’ down pat – even at rest he tends to resemble a fish out of water, gasping for air. Kinski clearly had a great agent or sold himself extremely well, as he shows up consistently in American films produced on the continent.

 

George Seaton’s direction isn’t as bland as generic TV coverage, but neither is it expressive or exciting. We see interesting places but aren’t directed as to how to feel about them; Eric Erickson’s trips might as well be a travelogue. Seaton’s camera never feels like it’s in the best place, it’s just there. The major outdoor setpiece takes place in a public square in Copenhagen. Erickson is recognized by a Nazi security man, but masses of Danish bicyclists block the street, form an impromptu mob so the Gestapo can’t pursue. It’s patriotic and exciting and I’m sure things like that happened, but Seaton’s direction is feeble and unconvincing.

When Eric and Marianne are alone and frightened we do get some okay lighting schemes. But Erickson narrates the film, so we subconsciously know that he’s going to come out in one piece, either that or the film will end at his firing squad. William Holden had already ‘narrated’ a movie after the death of his character, but Counterfeit doesn’t function at that level of narrative sophistication. We instead get reassurances that the English spies are good chaps after all, and that nobody’s will be asking Eric Erickson embarrassing questions about the profits he made from the Third Reich, all the way through the 1930s. Did Erickson’s war record stayed on the q.t. for more or or less the same reason that another celebrated ‘good-bad’ man, Oskar Schindler, didn’t bring his Nazi dealings out into the open?

 

Most of the lighting is too bright when perhaps the only studio-like scenes should be those elite Reich parties. In 1962 Americans just were also not into period costuming and hairstyles; maybe this is one reason that Visconti’s movies were so impressive. 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, which are more credible. Eric Erickson would look perfectly at home in 1962 … back in ’42 he’d be wearing heavier wool suits.

I still enjoy The Counterfeit Traitor quite a bit. Holden and Palmer are excellent, as is the talented European supporting cast. Holden commands the screen, effortlessly conveying the skill of a man under pressure, responding as an adult with self-control. The picture is one of those unkillable stories that if played straight and honest just can’t help but be good on some levels. George Seaton’s every 8th picture was a solid hit — and the characters here hold our attention even when the story just plods forward. It also looks much better on video disc than it once did on TV — the widescreen framing helps a lot. Yes, this one begs to be re-thought and re-made. These kinds of spies had to be very special, different kinds of people. Could the diplomatic Erickson simply have been a talented survivor, blessed with the ability to run an entirely fake existence, lie to everybody around him, and keep up appearances at the same time?

 


Viavision [Imprint]’s Region-free Blu-ray of The Counterfeit Traitor is a solid HD transfer of this vintage picture. The title optical and various optical transitions are dirty but most of the movie is in decent shape. The bright cinematography looks good overall, just not particularly exciting or period-conscious. It is a big improvement, however, on Paramount’s 2004 DVD.

Imprint has taken the trouble to license a good 1989 TV bio of William Holden. The actor seems to have been a complex man with various bad habits, but who was basically honest with himself. I was lucky to see William Holden once when he was shooting S.O.B. outside where I was working, the old Technicolor building on Cahuenga Street in Hollywood. I guess he just wanted to shoot the breeze with the crew, and was having a fine time standing in the hot sun telling some story to a bunch of below-the-line types thrilled to listen. A totally winning personality — he clearly identified with the ordinary guys in the crew.

Imprint secured the ’60s experts Lee Pfeiffer and Paul Scrabo for a new commentary, which has plenty of information. Scrabo says early on that he’s read the book, which is presently not easy to procure. We get a couple of points of comparison but little to satisfy the 1,001 questions that come to mind. Their commentary helpfully directs us to a YouTube video in which the real Eric Erickson appeared on To Tell the Truth in 1958, the year that Alexander Klein’s book was published. His description on the show says he was a volunteer spy, and witnessed the execution of a female associate. Hey, and we get to see Polly Bergen.

Information on the book The Counterfeit Traitor, its author Alexander Klein and Eric Erickson himself is a little thin online with some promising pieces behind paywalls. One available article by Stephan Talty from 2013 is short but candid: How an American Nazi Collaborator Became an Allied Spy. Talty asserts that Eric Ericson lied a LOT about his life, that Klein’s book downplayed his years of collaboration with Nazi Germany and faked his ‘daring escape’ as a fugitive. But Talty also discovered that the Frau Marianne Möllendorf character was real — Eric was enamored of a German woman named Anne-Maria Freudenreich, who apparently was executed by the Gestapo at Moabit Prison. But did the Nazis contrive for Erickson to witness the execution?   The movie may have forever blurred that information forever.

Two final notes: although even Amazon lists Counterfeit as Region B, it plays perfectly in Region A. I tested it from final product. Also, my friend at Movies a la Mark has a worthy second critical opinion on this show; careful, it has a couple of spoilers.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


The Counterfeit Traitor
Region-free Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Very Good
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Audio Commentary by Lee Pfeiffer and Paul Scrabo; hourlong documentary Willliam Holden: The Golden Boy; trailer, photo gallery.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case in card sleeve
Reviewed:
May 14, 2022
(6732coun)
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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.