Talking Pictures

A Reluctant Spy's Conversion

Revisiting George Seaton’s underrated 1962 film, The Counterfeit Traitor

By David Lehman | February 4, 2021
William Holden in 1962's The Counterfeit Traitor (Everett Collection)
William Holden in 1962's The Counterfeit Traitor (Everett Collection)

The Counterfeit Traitor is an underrated espionage classic in the same league as an early Eric Ambler novel or a Warner Brothers ’40s flick, albeit one set on location and in color. My best guess for why it is underrated is that the hero (William Holden) and heroine (Lilli Palmer) do not conform to accepted norms. They are played not by an all-American boy and golden girl but by two attractive and capable, if decidedly middle-aged, adults. Holden, who plays protagonist Eric “Red” Erickson, was 44 in 1962. Palmer, cast with her mitteleuropa beauty and charm as Frau Marianne von Mollendorf, Erickson’s clandestine confederate in Berlin, was 48.

Like the patron of Rick’s Cafe Américain in Casablanca, the hero of The Counterfeit Traitor does not begin the Second World War as the champion of a cause. He must be converted, and Frau von Mollendorf is his catalyst, converting the American-born, Cornell-educated Swedish industrialist from reluctant spy to committed freedom fighter.

Erickson, an oil exporter who has continued to trade with Germany after hostilities began in September 1939, has aimed for a stance of political neutrality. But he has been denounced as a Nazi collaborator, and now Allied Intelligence, led by the sardonic British agent Collins (Hugh Griffith), wants him to play the role with a vengeance. Repeating ugly shibboleths and breaking off relations with his best friend, a Jew, Erickson gains credibility among Nazi higher-ups, enabling him to gather vital information on German oil production facilities.

Not for the first time in his Hollywood career does Holden portray a resourceful skeptic that the Allies need to recruit despite his reluctance to join the fray. As in The Bridge on the River Kwai, his character needs to have his arm twisted hard. (See my Talking Pictures piece “William Holden, Model Prisoner” on William Holden in two lauded movies of the 1950s.) You might call Erickson disillusioned, but he doesn’t appear to have illusions in the first place. Virtually coerced into the role of counterfeit traitor, Erickson sums up his situation thus: “So you want me to risk my life to get off a blacklist I didn’t deserve to be on in the first place?”

Erickson and Frau von Molendorff, the wife of a German officer off womanizing in occupied France, are supposedly having an affair. This is their cover. Given the sparks between Erickson and von Mollendorf, whose elegance at high social functions conceals her idealism, the liaison turns romantic for real. Both are eligible. Erickson has lost all his friends, and his wife, by acting the part of a quisling in Stockholm. Von Mollendorf is married in name only; but she is serious in her Catholicism, and therefore doesn’t sue for divorce.

When they meet, Erickson is working for the Allies because he has no choice. Von Mollendorf, on the other hand, acts out of deep moral conviction, a revulsion with Hitler and his movement. She predicts that someday Erickson “will see a stranger, a complete stranger, being bullied, beaten; and suddenly, in an agonizing moment, he will become your brother.” So it happens when Erickson witnesses a Nazi officer defeat a strike of famished Polish “volunteers” by picking one at random and hanging him in front of the others.

Von Mollendorf’s moral dilemma comes as an unexpected twist. Fearing that she is implicated, however indirectly, in a bombing raid that killed innocent schoolchildren, she wants to cease passing information to her Allied contacts. She feels an intense need to confess, and she enters a church, not knowing that a Gestapo agent rather than a priest is seated in the confession box.

The movie reaches its emotional climax when Erickson is made to watch von Molldendorf receive brutal Nazi justice. The Gestapo needs to decide whether his involvement with Frau Mollendorf was strictly an affair of the heart. He passes the test, but his days on German soil are numbered.

Once the movie’s moral dilemmas have solved themselves, the film becomes a great escape thriller. The hero must elude the Gestapo en route to Hamburg, where his Allied contact turns out to be a sex worker in the red-light district. In the woods, he must outrun German border patrol hounds to cross into Denmark. In Copenhagen, he is given a cyanide tablet (“in case you get caught”). Arrested on a busy boulevard, he escapes the clutches of an old Gestapo antagonist thanks to an intrepid truck driver and the Danish bicyclists’ form of nonviolent resistance, bringing car traffic to a standstill. A harrowing adventure on a fishing boat to Stockholm precedes a nostalgic coda.

Based on the nonfiction book of the same title by Alexander Klein (1958), The Counterfeit Traitor is true in its broad contours, if not in all details, and highly romanticized. (As befits a case of espionage, some complicating facts did not come to light until many years after the movie.) The hoax Erickson and his superiors concocted to justify his visiting oil refineries in Germany took him to meetings with top Gestapo officials, including Himmler. On June 3, 1945, The New York Times ran the headline, “Swedish ‘Pro-Nazi’ Duped for 3 Years: Blacklisted by US, He Sent Allies Secret Data on Synthetic Gasoline Plants.”

One reason Germany lost the war was the fuel deficit that doomed the Nazis’ western offensive during the bitter winter of 1944-45. Albert Speer’s industrial machine was building synthetic gasoline plants as fast as it could, but Allied bombing raids would just as swiftly cripple them. The raids could not have happened without the information Erickson and his confederates provided.

Rather than risk leaving a paper trail, Erickson trusted his prodigious memory with the names, places, and top-secret plans for new oil refineries. The only documents that figure in his story are the letters he agreed to write for German businessmen who cooperated with Allied intelligence. In the event of a German defeat, these letters would protect the men and their families from partisan reprisals. If, however, the Nazis were to discover such a letter, it would fatally compromise Erickson’s mission—and sentence the bearer as well as the Swedish spy to certain death. The fate of one such letter proves pivotal in the movie.

I first grasped the importance of a pocket square with three wings in a man’s breast pocket when I saw William Holden wear one at a cocktail party in The Counterfeit Traitor. And it was watching the movie as a 14-year-old that I realized for the first time that the hopelessness of a love affair accentuates its romantic and sexual intensity.

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