This year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar winner, The Counterfeiters, asks you to look at criminals with a little perspective. The hero of this true story, after all, is a convicted con artist, a Russian Jew who became known as the “King of Counterfeiters” and was living the high life in the ’30s before he was arrested and ended up in a concentration camp. His crimes, forging everything from currency to passports, were great, and under normal circumstances any ethical human being would want him punished. But who could feel anything but sympathy for someone in Auschwitz? And what would you do if your only chance of survival involved aiding the Nazi regime?
Writer-director Stefan Ruzowitzky adapted The Counterfeiters from a book by Adolf Burger (who worked in a secret Nazi counterfeit workshop), and though the film never forgets its setting, its greatest achievement is that it’s a Holocaust story that doesn’t bludgeon you with that fact. Rather, it focuses on the unlikely conflicts of conscience that arise when a small group of prisoners find themselves in a relatively hopeful predicament: Chosen for their craftsman skills, Salomon Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics), Adolf Burger (August Diehl), and a few others are moved to a nicer facility where the shower chambers are actually used for showers and the formerly death-sentenced will be granted more time in exchange for their services helping the Germans fund their war effort.
Markovics’ Salomon is instantly respectable despite his nefarious past—the actor and his impossibly triangular, cartoonishly criminal-perfect head project all the intelligence, logic, and charisma of the screen’s most compelling felons. While other prisoners, especially Burger, feel guilty about those left back in the camps and then angry about what they are asked to do, Salomon coolly reasons with them—“A day is a day,” he says—and often saves their lives by covering up their increasing unwillingness to play along. Like a mob boss, he takes care of them—but also isn’t above putting someone back in line for the welfare of all involved.
The Counterfeiters’ milieu is predominantly grimy, gray, and blue, and there are agonizing moments that remind you of the brutality the prisoners’ “employers” are capable of. The dexterity of the script is such that each time, for instance, some poor soul is shot point-blank or a letter arrives informing a man of his family’s murder, you understand Salomon’s thinking—and then concede that Burger has a point as well. The film not only prompts a fresh discussion about a much-dissected time period, it creates characters that are allowed to bloom underneath the weight of the tragedy itself.