The Counterfeit Traitor, as you may have guessed, is one of my favorite 1960s spy movies.
Most classic spy films focus on a single, critical piece of information – or a one-time, action-packed assignment. There are exceptions: Ingrid Bergman in Notorious, or George Smiley hunting the mole in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. But really, most movie spies are after MacGuffins. TV spies’ work is, by nature, episodic; movie spies generally have a mission to get in, get the information, and get out – as fast as possible. Occasionally, we catch up to embedded spies just as they’re escaping (or trying to). It’s less common to find a spy on a long-term, ongoing espionage assignment.
The Counterfeit Traitor‘s premise is loosely based on the story of Eric Erickson, a real WWII spy.
William Holden’s voice-over lays out the facts. The year: 1942. Eric Erickson is a Swedish oil executive (American by birth, now a Swedish citizen). He’s just been placed on a U.S. blacklist and disowned by his brother for – according to Erickson – no reason at all. A “Nazi collaborator,” the papers say. All he’s doing is trading oil with Germany! Sweden is neutral; he’s a businessman. Germany needs barrels of oil; Erickson likes barrels of money. Simple.
Simple, that is, until he meets a British intelligence agent (Collins, played by Hugh Griffith). Collins explains that he can arrange to remove Erickson from the blacklist after the war (a necessity if Erickson wants to keep his business a going concern), provided he serves as a spy. Erickson is ideally situated to discover critical information about Germany’s oil production, and pass it on to Allied Bomber Command. With his hand forced, Erickson agrees. In short order, he’ll also be compelled to turn visibly, actively pro-Nazi – publicly insulting his Jewish best friend, and even losing his wife in the process. He can’t tell anyone. And all for a cause he couldn’t care less about.
As much as it’s an exciting spy story (with a harrowing escape), The Counterfeit Traitor is also about the awakening of a collaborator’s conscience, and a tragic love story. It raises questions about moral responsibility, and doesn’t necessarily answer them. It’s a thrilling, gripping, bittersweet roller coaster of a tale.
There’s too much here to summarize properly, and honestly, I don’t want to give away too many spoilers. (Although I do share a few important ones, so be warned.) This is one you’ll want to watch. Instead, let me share some of the reasons and scenes that make it one of my favorites. There are lots of things to enjoy in this movie.
When we meet Erickson, he’s marching off in a huff to see a man whom he believes to be a friend of his brother in America. Erickson is going to tell his side of the story, and hopefully get things straightened out, using this friend as a courier. Erickson knocks at the hotel room door, and meets Collins (Hugh Griffith).
Collins, halfway through breakfast, invites him to sit and have a cigarette. And then informs Erickson that he doesn’t know his brother; never did.
Erickson: Who are you?
Collins: I’m one of the few so-called intelligence agents who’s not in the lobby at the moment.
George Seaton (director and screenwriter) cleverly manipulates our feelings about Erickson and Collins in a subtle, but effective, scene. All we know so far about Erickson is that he collaborates with the Nazis, and Collins is an Allied agent. Our sympathies should be with Collins. But just as he lays out the one-sided deal to a stunned Erickson, he starts getting really obnoxious with the lip-smacking noises, pouring tea, stirring in the sugar, and munching his breakfast. Ostensibly, we should be disliking Erickson, but Griffith is being evasive and annoying and stretching those flexible features of his. Though we don’t know it, we suddenly share Erickson’s dislike of Collins.
Griffith strikes just the right off-key note as the sarcastic British intelligence agent with a fondness for lobster and a willingness to ruthlessly apply screws when necessary. He has no particular sympathy for Holden, and the feeling is mutual.
Collins: Fortunately, in this sort of work, people don’t have to love each other. My job is information, and in order to get it, I will deal with thieves, liars, procurers, traitors, sluts, the lot. I really don’t care if you’re Goebbels’ half-brother or if you sell heroin for a living. Just bring back the information and we’ll get along splendidly.
The Counterfeit Traitor also has a realistic portrayal of high-level espionage. Key to Erickson’s cover is a scheme to build a fake synthetic oil plant. Germany needs bomb-proof sources of oil; why not offer to build one in Sweden? It would give him an excuse to examine oil refineries and other areas of interest all over Europe under the guise of research. Bonus: getting buy-in from officials who want a safe investment. The Allies go for it.
Allied intelligence prepares genuine plans and presentation materials for the fake plant. (If the book was accurate on this point, the supporting material went deep. It wasn’t just fancy graphics; it was fully-fledged business plans, forged papers from financial backers, backup plans in case the Germans did their research, the works.)
No smash-and-grab raids of secret files here. The keys to Germany’s secrets lie in ordinary business meetings in conference rooms; elegant graphs with cooked-up data; cozy discussions over brandy and cigars in exclusive clubs; a few games of bridge. Networking, you might call it.
The cinematography. The credits thank the city governments of Stockholm, Copenhagen, Hamburg and West Berlin for permitting filming on location. The outdoor locations are lovely, adding the right amount of scope for a mission that spans multiple countries. And there are shots like this, filmed through a bomb-shattered window as a couple wait, paralyzed, as the Gestapo converge on their apartment building.
Of course, there’s William Holden himself. Holden had a knack for playing ambiguous and objectionable characters in a relatable way. Erickson is an opportunist, and a pretty repellent one, at that. But Holden (and the script) never make him detestable. We’re allowed into his train of thought (the voice-over narration is key here, as in Sunset Boulevard), and we realize that he’s not irredeemable. We know he’s going to change; we’re just waiting for the metamorphosis.
That metamorphosis is spurred by Marianne Mollendorf (Lilli Palmer). Erickson discovers, to his pleased surprise, that the woman who caught his eye on an earlier trip is his contact in Berlin. Wife to a high-ranking German officer, she’s “invited to the best parties, where I pick up the best information.”
Lilli Palmer really shines here. She exudes energy, warmth, strength, and intensity as Marianne. She’s the catalyst for converting Erickson from a reluctant recruit to a willing spy. In a way, this movie is as much hers as Erickson’s.
Their cover story is that they’re carrying on an affair (which will eventually become real) – a perfect excuse for clandestine meetings.
Erickson: There hasn’t been a welcome like that since Lindbergh landed in Paris.
Marianne: Just in case you’re being followed.
Erickson: Keep it up. The whole Gestapo’s behind me.
Their first meeting has a nice twist on the usual tropes. Marianne has critical information to pass on, and they settle in, ready to begin. Practiced agent Marianne switches on the radio, blasting Wagner; takes a breath, and launches into her report, sharing names and details at breakneck speed.
I think it was at this point that The Counterfeit Traitor jumped to the list of my favorite spy movies. Why?
Because William Holden, instead of nodding sagely like any normal spy, starts staring intently into space, repeating her key points slowly, tapping off names and locations on his fingers. He’s only got ten of them. You can see his brain suddenly go into overload.
“I can’t concentrate with that going on. Look, I have a visual memory. If I can write it out, I can remember it.”
Marianne fetches a pen and paper. She’s being consciously patient; she’s clearly used to pouring out her reports to a more capable receiver, and she has to hold back as Holden scribbles everything down and memorizes it.
Pause a moment. Show of hands. How many movies have you seen in which something like this happens? Intrepid spy meets contact, or is briefed by his/her superior officer for a dangerous mission. Spy listens intently as said contact does a verbal infodump for the benefit of the audience: “Now, Agent 0071204Z-Q, it is crucial that you locate the hidden airfield located 26.2 degrees NNW of Obscure Landmark, and [insert boatload of mission-critical details, specifics, and alternate plans here].” Following this barrage of information, our spy nods. Intently. He’s got it. Three days later, with two hours of sleep under his belt, he’s going to remember those details and that message, because he is just that awesome. Notes? We don’t need no stinkin’ notes! If there’s any visual reference material, like a map or a diagram, our agent will be able to grasp this information in a fleeting glance, before handing it back to signify complete understanding.
Now, I’m sure real spies get proper spy training to remember stuff better. But when we’re dealing with ordinary men pressed into service as spies, or even trained agents who lack Archie Goodwin-like levels of total recall, the “intent glance and understanding nod” is ridiculous.
Kudos to Seaton for adding a touch of humorous reality.
Over a glass of wine afterwards, Erickson is curious. He asks Marianne what the Allies have on her. She doesn’t understand, and he explains his own situation: turn spy, or destroy his lucrative business. Marianne looks at him with some distaste. “Haven’t you ever opposed something because it’s wrong, morally wrong?” Erickson: “Not when my life depended on it.”
Marianne explains that she’s a Catholic; her faith drives her to do whatever she can to rid Germany of Hitler. Erickson scoffs: “You don’t think when they hang that paranoiac, that’s going to be the end of persecution? Another greedy psychopathic–” Marianne cuts him off. “But this is now, and I’m here. And I must do what I must do.”
Erickson’s blasé attitude towards the entire thing is summed up in his response to Marianne’s passionate attempts to convey Why He Should Care:
“I feel sorry for those people, deeply sorry. I suffer for them.” She acidly retorts, “But not with them. That’s the difference. Someday, though, you might. You will see a stranger, a complete stranger, being bullied, beaten; and suddenly, in an agonizing moment, he will become your brother.”
They part ways for the night, but Marianne’s intense convictions make an impression that won’t fade.
It’s not long afterwards that Erickson witnesses the viciousness of the Third Reich first-hand. He and the Baron von Oldenburg (Ernst Schröder) – another spy blackmailed into action – are touring a small plant near Leipzig; the Polish “volunteers” are on a sit-down strike: “too long hours and too little food.” The businessmen are annoyed, but the Gestapo man they’re with assures them that there won’t be any trouble. Just a little while, and the plant will start again. Will they wait in an upstairs office?
The plant’s management deals efficiently with strikes. From the office windows, Erickson and the Baron watch in growing horror and disbelief as the solution rolls up: a truck with a hanging noose. One man is all it takes; the workers’ shoulders slump and they file back to work.
Von Oldenburg: Strange. You can read about a hundred atrocities, even about a thousand, but you only have to see one.
Erickson: And suddenly, he becomes your brother.
From now on, the two will be spying for a cause, not from coercion.
Oh, yes. Meet one of the most frightening children to send cold shivers down your spine: Hans Holtz. More frightening, in a way, than the alien children in Village of the Damned, because they were fictional. Hans is chillingly realistic, a plausible result of raising a child to hate, spy, and murder.
Hans is the son of Otto Holtz, one of Erickson’s informants. Otto detests what his country has become, and is willing to help Erickson, in exchange for security for himself and his family after the Allies invade. His son knows nothing of this.
According to IMDb, Helo Gutschwager acted in just three movies. I’m surprised he never did any further acting, because his Hans is absolutely perfect. He’s just a kid, almost ridiculously imitating Himmler, but he’s smart, and scary. He’s also a brat. By all logic, a twelve-year-old child shouldn’t have such a chilling effect, but Hans does. In his Hitler Youth uniform, he’s the pride of his ditzy mother and a terror to his father. When we first meet Hans, he greets Erickson with a crisp Nazi salute. Back at the Holtz home, Erickson witnesses Hans mulling over a classmate’s mouthing (not shouting) of anti-British chants, and how he decides it’s his duty to report the classmate…and his family. Otto is horrified, but he can’t protest: with a wife and child like that, he’d be sealing his own grave.
It’s not spoiling much to say that Hans is going to become a big problem for Erickson.
The Counterfeit Traitor doesn’t shy away from the war’s toll on German civilians. And Marianne has a crisis of conscience. A bombing raid on a chemical plant was successful – too successful.
She can’t rationalize her actions anymore, and wants out. Erickson is baffled.
Erickson: “All the convictions I have, you gave me. And because of them I’m willing to live with fear. And now I find out that you have doubts.”
Marianne: “I have discovered that there is something worse than fear. It’s guilt.”
Through Marianne and Erickson, the movie raises questions that are never fully answered. The only answer, it seems, is provided by Marianne, when Erickson argues that his newly-developed conscience won’t permit him to rest. “Then you must continue,” she says. Marianne’s feelings of guilt now prevent her from participating, but Erickson’s compels him to act.
Racked with guilt, Marianne decides to go to confession.
Marianne was the reason for Erickson’s change of heart, and eventually, became his heart. When she dies, it’s as if it’s a cue for Erickson’s world to begin to crack, and his cover story begins to crumble. Looking like he wants to give up and die, he’s compelled to keep moving: to cover his tracks, wrap up loose ends, and run for cover.
And that’s just the first two-thirds.
The Counterfeit Traitor clocks in at nearly 2 1/2 hours. And you wouldn’t want it to be a minute less. Nothing in these 140 minutes is filler.
- Features a score by Academy Award-winning composer Alfred Newman. A good score is supposed to enhance the story, not compete with it, and Newman’s is perfect.
- Screenplay and direction by George Seaton. Seaton began his Hollywood career as a script writer, eventually becoming a director – who also wrote or adapted the screenplays for most of his films.
- 1962 was an important year in spy movies: Dr. No, the first Connery Bond film, was released months later.
- George Seaton previously directed Holden in The Country Girl (1954), The Proud and Profane (1956), and Apartment for Peggy (1948).
I mentioned that The Counterfeit Traitor was based on a true story. It is…loosely.
The real Erickson’s intelligence proved invaluable in stalling German oil production, and accidentally resulted in the destruction of Germany’s atomic experiments – they were located next to a synthetic oil plant. Surprisingly, we don’t see most of this in the movie – we know they’re successfully bombing refineries, but that’s about it.
In an ironic twist, the movie, in trying to spice up the plot, may have hit nearer the mark than the “true” biography that preceded it. In Seaton’s script, Erickson is 100% collaborator, trading with Germany until 1942, when he’s coerced into spying.
In the 1958 book by Alexander Klein, allegedly a biography written in consultation with Erickson, the businessman is portrayed in radiant tones as a pro-freedom, anti-Nazi American at heart, despite a shift in citizenship for practical purposes. According to Klein, he was recruited in 1939 by U.S. intelligence, and began to build his cover as a pro-Nazi collaborator at that time.
But according to a recent biographer, Stephen Talty:
“Erickson hadn’t begun working for the OSS in 1939, it turned out, out of patriotism and anti-Nazi feeling. It had been 1942. And he wasn’t pretending to be a Nazi collaborator as part of his cover. He’d actually been one all along. Erickson’s business ledgers for 1939 alone showed he’d earned millions in oil deals with the Third Reich, a fact he tried to hide for decades. And he’d kept on making money until he’d been placed on the Allied black-list and his brother in America had been forced to disown him.
“Erickson wasn’t a Nazi, by any stretch. But he didn’t mind making money off them. Becoming a spy, it turned out, was an act of atonement.”
For more, see Talty’s Atlantic article: “How an American Nazi collaborator became an Allied spy.”
The Counterfeit Traitor was recently released on DVD by the Warner Archive, and is also available for instant streaming on Amazon. Warner Archive’s sales are probably the best place to pick this up on DVD, as Amazon only seems to offer it through third-party sellers.