The year is 1942. The news is not good for Cioma Schönhaus (Louis Hofmann), a young Jewish man living in Berlin. His family has been deported east to the concentration camps, and his closest friend, Det (Jonathan Berlin), has just lost his exemption to avoid a similar fate. Cioma’s exemption is offered through a tenuous agreement to work for a weapons manufacturer, but even that is on borrowed time. With his strict landlady Frau Peters (Nina Gummich) also pushing Cioma and Det to leave, the situation will soon be very desperate indeed. That is, until a chance offer to forge identification papers to smuggle Jews out of the country puts Cioma’s art background to careful, life-saving use.
Based on a true story, Maggie Peren’s “The Forger” follows the young man’s quiet, reluctant journey into heroism. He never meets with most of the over 300 people he saves, nor does he seem particularly motivated to do the work for a grander purpose. It’s a job, and it helps him get paid in ration cards, which he then uses to court a young woman who calls herself Gerda (Luna Wedler)—but that’s not her real name. She is also keeping secrets, like a fiancee out at the front, but who needs to date other men like Cioma to survive.
Peren, who wrote and directed “The Forger,” subtly draws out these conflicted characters one by one. Det, who initially comes across like a soft-spoken tailor, finds a lifeline through the women in the market, and his connections are able to make ends meet here and there. Frau Peters makes her no-nonsense personality known early, but later shows a deeper sense of internal turmoil over everything that’s happening. Not everyone is as they originally seem—except the Nazi officials, what you see is what you get with them.
But no one quite undergoes a transformation like Cioma. Forgery appears to embolden Cioma to take on different personalities, better to blend in and avoid suspicion in broad daylight if he acts like he belongs in Nazi Germany. He takes public transportation at daytime, goes out to party at night dressed as a naval officer, and talks back to Germans if it means throwing them off his case. It’s a bold game of bluff, and it intensifies the movie’s suspense. Will he be able to talk his way out of this one? How much longer can his nerves withstand the pressure before he too will need to forge his own way out? Thankfully, Louis Hofmann is a charming lead, with the charisma to change gears mid-scene, alter his tone and body language within the same breath. When things inevitably get dark, he’s able to carry the film using his expressive eyes, bringing to the screen a character who looks as if he’s seen too much in his young life.
To achieve the period detail in the film, Peren and her crew immerse the viewer in 1940s Berlin, pulling in the senses from its wartime nightlife to the dour restaurant that only takes ration cards for payment. Everything keeps the film as visually arresting as its suspenseful narrative, from the shifts from warm to cool tones in Christian Stangassinger’s cinematography to Robert Sterna’s brisk editing. The combined efforts of production designers Philipp Eggert and Eva Stiebler, art directors Marc Ridremont and Stiebler, and costume designer Diana Dietrich fill in the rest: from heating pipes fueled by a small fire and the ever-shrinking living spaces to the electric outlet dangling out of the chandelier and the characters’ clothes that become threadbare from daily use. Although these details seem minute, they added so much to my experience with the film.
Not all aspects of “The Forger” work as nicely together, like when a few of the “Catch Me if You Can” moments of levity are next to the reminders of wartime brutality. The tone changes feel abrupt, pointing out that although Cioma is a cocksure young man whose talents allowed him to escape to tell his story, he did so out of a need to survive, not just for laughs. “The Forger” is constantly wrestling with its comedic impulses and the gravity of its time.