Few know about the remarkable life story of graphic artist Cioma Schönhaus. He lived in 1942 Berlin as a young Jew, hiding in plain sight while helping forge hundreds of identity documents for other Jewish survivors. While this feat in itself is undeniably brave, Schönhaus managed to escape Berlin on a bicycle by forging a military ID and remained in Switzerland until his death. A defiant artist and survivor who challenged an evil superstructure in subtle yet significant ways, Schönhaus lived and loved intensely during a fascist regime where his very existence was an act of rebellion. In 2007, Schönhaus detailed his experiences in his memoir, “The Forger,” which has been adapted by Maggie Peren in her latest feature of the same name.
Peren’s “The Forger” does not explicitly dwell on the larger picture of anti-semitic evil that precipitated World War II but instead delves into the untold stories of hardships that threatened Jewish lives in 1942 Berlin. A 21-year-old Cioma Schönhaus (a sublime Louis Hofmann) has been granted an exemption after his family is deported to the concentration camps. At the same time, his best friend Det (Jonathan Berlin) has just lost his exemption and is now living with him. Cioma is expected to work in a weapons manufacturing factory to maintain his exemption status. However, it is only a matter of time before things get seriously dire for everyone involved.
Cioma endures everything with a genuine smile on his face. This is neither a facade to shield inner consternation or angst nor is it a careful strategy to dupe the system. Cioma’s optimism in the face of grave danger often verges on carelessness, as he makes several decisions that can be deemed foolish, considering the circumstances. However, it is difficult to fault Cioma for his unending optimism — he’s an artist at heart, a man who dreams, a man who focuses on the light at the end of the tunnel even before it is visible. There’s an endearing charm to Ciaoma when he interacts with those around him, which is jarring to behold, considering the cruelty that unfolds around him and seeps directly into his life.
A dearth of food stamps urges Cioma to put his artistic skills to use, and he ends up forging countless IDs for Franz Kaufmann (Marc Limpach) after the latter offers him shelter by the time Cioma loses his factory job. While Cioma’s status as an unwitting hero is urged by a simple need to survive and put food on the table, these acts of rebellion, which he carries out with equal parts sincerity and casual nonchalance, are life-saving and have far-reaching consequences. Cioma carries this terrible purpose with the same ease with which he impersonates a German soldier who has just returned from the front lines and publicly says things expected of him to evade suspicion from the Gestapo.
As things close around him and get more desperate, Cioma clutches onto his noncorrosive optimism with equal desperation. Peren conveys these complexities in naturalistic ways, which often feel so benign but are actually not at all — the faked vigor with which Cioma has to say “Heil Hitler” to various people reveals way more about his situation than any direct conflict. There’s something brazen about a man who uses his art to save hundreds and walk around the streets of Berlin with the faked IDs casually tucked within the folds of a newspaper. Even when cornered, he improvises and mimics the system meant to step on people like him, turning the tables in his favor just enough to make it through another day.
The Forger is a beautifully-rendered true-life tale about one man’s dedication to living life in the backdrop of Nazi Germany. The film focuses on the domestic mundanities, which we often take for granted, and molds them into necessary personal rituals for survival. For Cioma and Det, wartime means limited to no food supply, and even something as commonplace as coffee becomes a luxury that needs to be smuggled in. Wartime for them also means deportation, with the knell of death constantly hovering over them while they sit together, iron clothes, or share a warm meal. Every moment counts.