Where is your paperwork?
Under normal circumstances, the story of Cioma Schönhaus’ brief career in forgery would be a standard crime drama. But Maggie Peren’s film, The Forger, inverts the genre, with much more at stake than someone pulling off a scheme to get rich. In World War II-era Germany, the state is the criminal and the forger is the hero.
Based on his 2007 memoir, Schönhaus (Louis Hofmann), a Jewish man, survived the Nazi regime, in part, by hiding in plain sight. Peren, who also wrote the screenplay, loosens the strictures of the memoir’s plot of survival and escape by focusing on the characters’ varied and understandably neurotic reactions to living under fascism. How someone adapts to increasing levels of psychological distress and moral disorder is the director’s true subject.
The camera first finds Cioma as he’s entering a fully furnished flat in an urban apartment building. It’s immediately apparent that something’s off. There’s an uncomfortable air of stillness inside. He’s come home to no one.
Peren’s script doesn’t provide context or explanations in the way that a film like Schindler’s List does. The director depends on the audience’s familiarity with the Holocaust—both real and cinematic depictions—and the weight it holds in our collective imagination. In Cioma’s empty and silent flat, Peren expects us to grasp the situation—his family has already been deported to a death camp.
When his best friend, Det (Jonathan Berlin), shows up needing a place to stay, we find out that Cioma’s day job at a factory has given him a temporary exemption. It isn’t clear what the exact terms of “temporary” mean in his case, but they’re aware that time’s running out for both of them. Identification papers are a matter of life and death in The Forger. When they’re commuting across town via trolley or even sitting at a cafe, if Cioma and Det don’t have the proper paperwork, the imminent threat of being arrested is around the next corner.
In several scenes, when someone unexpectedly knocks on Cioma’s front door, Peren achieves the tension of a horror movie or thriller. While he’s in the middle of his first passport forgery, a government official arrives to make an account of the Schönhaus family’s possessions. Everything will be confiscated and Cioma subject to an eviction—and, the assumption is, he’ll be deported, imprisoned and killed. But Cioma’s luck holds out on this and many other occasions.
As Cioma, Louis Hofmann has to balance the character’s ingenuity and hopefulness while, at the same time, staring into an abyss. In this German iteration of a major screen debut, his performance is as skillful as Sally Hawkins’ is in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky. Playing the elementary school teacher Poppy, Hawkins manages to convey wit and determination as it evolves into an expression of pure cinematic joy. Given his very different circumstances, Cioma’s unrestrained optimism is contained inside the shards of a darker looking glass.
Countering despair and resignation, his training in the fine arts provides Cioma with an occupation and an opportunity to provide some of his fellow Jews with the necessary paperwork to escape from Germany. He doesn’t speak to Det about the loss of his family. Nor does he fret about the consequences of being caught for forgery.
Cioma complies with the bureaucrat who closes off his family’s apartment as it’s being taped shut and sealed with a blood red Nazi symbol. He makes due by suppressing his emotions and then transmuting them into the delicate ink strokes he replicates on each forged ID.
Peren’s point of view is that of a witness recounting what she sees without needing to add a commentary. When a waiter at a cafe almost imperceptibly intervenes between Cioma and an SS officer, the director doesn’t go in for a close-up or a reaction shot. The audience barely registers that a nameless minor character has, silently and without asking for anything in return, saved Cioma’s life.
Small acts of heroism are up against countless acts of nihilism in The Forger. It’s astonishing to watch Cioma’s moral compass remain intact while the society around him gives in to the Nazis’ assumption of power and their chilling, absurd and inhumane right to determine their fates based upon a few words written down on a piece of paper.
The Forger opens in theaters on Friday, March 31.