"The Counterfeiters" is a World War II concentration-camp film with a difference. It steps neatly past historical messages that don't require repeating, and asks questions that are strikingly relevant here and now. When is it better to strike a deal with the Devil than to oppose him directly? Would you preserve your own life at the cost of others'? By placing its characters on a moral tightrope without passing judgment on their teetering progress, this year's Oscar-winning best foreign film forces us to confront ethical decisions that hit uneasily close to home.
The film tells the true story of Salomon Sorowitsch, master forger. We meet him in Monte Carlo after the war, wearing shabby clothes and carrying a satchel bursting with bank notes. After being fitted for a tuxedo, he enters a casino and calmly sets about losing a fortune in record time. The story then flashes back to 1936, and we learn why the haunted counterfeiter feels compelled to squander his wealth.
Before the war, "Sally" (Karl Markovics) was a habitual and renowned criminal, the man to see for false documents and fake passports. Markovics has the kind of hatchet face that was born for a "Wanted" poster, and he gives his character the furtive intensity of an outlaw about to bolt for cover. He cares nothing about the Nazis' rise to power, nor his identity as a Jew, living for the next scam and the next available woman.
When he's arrested by Inspector Herzog (Devid Striesow) of the Berlin police, he's sent to the Mauthausen concentration camp as a run-of-the-mill criminal. A calculating survivor, he curries favor with his captors by painting flattering family portraits and Nazi kitsch. As the war rages on, however, his captors recognize Sally's unique value to the Reich.
The ambitious Herzog, now an SS officer at Sachsenhausen, recruits Sally to join a work detail of engravers, bankers and papermakers. Their secret project is to undermine the economies of the United States and Britain with a flood of counterfeit currency.
The scheme is rife with possibilities for suspense, which writer/director Stefan Ruzowitsky exploits masterfully. Within the prisoners' group, Sally is resented by law-abiding craftsmen and at odds with Burger (August Diehl), an idealistic printer who wants to sabotage the operation. And the guards are ever-vigilant for signs of insubordination or a slowdown.
The counterfeiting detail's life in "the golden cage" is more privileged than that of the general prison population. They are housed separately, fed adequately, kept healthy and even have a ping-pong table. Herzog, a smarmy apolitical opportunist who aspires to a career in "management" after the war, doles out rewards to keep his team on task. While they go about their work, however, the sounds of suffering from the other side of the wall are hard to ignore.
Ruzowitsky wisely doesn't transform his antihero into a man of virtue. Sally's actions are dictated by cunning and self-interest, and he's unapologetic. As he tells one of his more conflicted camp mates, "I won't give the Nazis the satisfaction of being ashamed that I'm alive."
Yet in such circumstances, even a hardened criminal can develop a conscience, and the fascination of the film is watching a crook's code of honor evolve into a sense of responsibility for others. There are no simplistic morality lessons or tidy resolutions in "The Counterfeiters," but it asks provocative questions.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186