Friday, March 03, 2023

The Forger: Cioma Schonhaus’s Survivor Story

Cioma Schonhaus had two advantages that helped him survive the National Socialists. First of all, he looked more like a blond matinee idol than the regime’s anti-Semitic caricatures. Of course, it was not enough to look the part. He also had to have the right papers, but he could help himself there too. Schonhaus’s incredible survival story unfolds in Maggie Peren’s The Forger, which opens today in New York.

The rest of Schonhaus’s family have been deported East, but he is allowed to remain in Berlin, because of his menial munitions job—at least, for now. Most of his family’s flat has been sealed by the authorities and the contents exhaustively catalogued. Schonhaus has been relegated to one small room, which he happily shares with his friend Detlev Kassriel, a fellow Jew rendered homeless by National Socialist appropriation.

However, the two young men try not to let that stand in the way of a good time. Using uniforms abandoned at a tailor’s, Schonhaus and Kassriel regularly party the nights away at hot spots, pretending to be junior officers on the night before their deployments. During the days, Schonhaus is recruited by the once-socially prominent resistance leader Franz Kaufmann, applying his graphic design training to forge identity papers.

The Forger
is not exactly intended as a breakneck thriller, but Schonhaus’s ability to brazenly bluff his way out of sticky situations is hugely impressive and often highly entertaining to witness. However, it is also a meditation on the loneliness of exile (even within one’s own home) and the quality of life, even while enduring extreme pressure.

In fact, Schonhaus is not always so heroic. Sometimes he is rash and irresponsible, as so many of us were in our early twenties. Regardless, it might sound like a tired clichĂ©, but Schonhaus really did try to live on his own terms—and he definitely survived to tell his story—he was the most compelling interview subject in Claus Rafle’s hybrid-documentary,
The Invisibles, which released a few months after his death.

Louis Hofmann does excellent work bringing Schonhaaus to life. He is certainly charming, but he also projects the “without a net” adrenaline-charged improvisational resourcefulness that saved the forger’s life so many times. It is a complex performance, especially opposite Nina Gummich, as Frau Peters, Schonhaus’s busy-body war-widow building concierge. They have several scenes together that are as good or better than just about anything you have seen in thematically similar dramas.

In some ways,
The Forger invites comparison to the Oscar-winning The Counterfeiters, but it is important to remember Schonhaus saved hundreds of lives with his forged documents, compared to Salomon Smolianoff, who was playing for time, trying to keep himself and his colleagues alive (which was certainly a worthy endeavor). Peren tells a great story, while fully delving into Schonhaus’s character. Highly recommended, The Forger opens today (3/3) in New York, at the Quad.