The Counterfeiters is that rare movie about the Holocaust where the line between good and evil is never fully drawn, and the shades of morality get grayer as the story unfolds. Schindler's List might well be the genre's definitive masterpiece, and while The Counterfeiters is almost everything Spielberg's epic is not, in some ways it's more effective in calculating the compromising effects of the Holocaust.
Austrian director Stefan Ruzowitzky adapted the story from a book by a survivor of Operation Bernhard, the Nazi effort to flood the British and American markets with counterfeit currency to destroy their economies. The Counterfeiters recently won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and is the only of the nominees scheduled (so far) to come through Atlanta.
The director's unlikely protagonist (given his source material) is Salomon "Sally" Sorowitsch (Karl Marcovics), a cynical Russian Jew living in 1930s Berlin who uses his gift for art not for aesthetic beauty but for counterfeiting. To Sally, making money by making money is the smart way to get through life; art is for dreamers.
His gift for forgery, and his worldview, are put to the test when he's arrested for forgery. Ironically, it's Herzog (Devid Striesow), a former friend turned Nazi, who adds Sally to a group of other imprisoned Jews. They're transferred from other concentration camps to Sachsenhausen and later Mauthausen, and are given special quarters and privileges with the explicit command that their work will spare them the indignities (and ultimate death) of their fellow prisoners on the other side of the wall.
The co-workers represent a microcosm of the struggle to survive – there are prisoners of practically every European nation and varying socioeconomic and political backgrounds. As a result, unity of purpose isn't easily achieved. While Sally and others see Operation Bernhard as both a challenge for his considerable talents and a lifeline – "One adapts or dies," he tells a co-worker – others see themselves as collaborators.
The most reluctant forger is a printer named Burger (August Diehl), a thoughtful communist who left behind a family at Auschwitz. Burger serves as Sally's conscience, and his ongoing sabotage of their efforts places Sally squarely between Burger and Herzog, who has his own pressures to deal with.
The Counterfeiters is at its best when it tries to color in these shades of morality, whether it's in major confrontations or minor moments of inner conflict, as when one of the guilt-ridden prisoners finds a picture of his young son among a stack of belongings dumped on his desk. At some point, the guilt of what they're doing becomes as painful as captivity itself.
The prisoners aren't above mistreatment by those who sometimes seem like clients but ultimately remind them that they are captors as well, and The Countefeiters conveys what now feels like the usual indignities of the Holocaust. But where Schindler's List never holds back on violence and brutality – almost to the point of torture porn – Ruzowitzky seems to have a firmer grasp of his sense of narrative scale. He realizes that the story's most brutal captor, Holst (a leering Martin Brambach), could be found in any movie on the subject, and so he modulates the character's games of humiliation to keep the story moving.
Markovics is equally calculating in his performance as Sally, clever by half but not without his own sense of humanity and guilt. He takes everything with a grain of salt, fighting to stay alive but wary of how every single action affects the group. He's walking a fine line, and he realizes that fact more and more toward the end.
If The Counterfeiters betrays a weakness, it's in the resolution. Since the film opens and closes with scenes from after the war, we know all along that Sally "gets away with it." Ultimately, Ruzowitzky doesn't seem entirely sure what to do with Sally, but then, maybe Sally doesn't either. When it comes to doing the right thing, it's an ongoing struggle.