Let’s be clear: Austria’s The Counterfeiters was not the best foreign-language film of the year. (For my money, that would be the minutely observed, grim-but-humane Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days.) It is a good, compelling film, but, its Oscar win notwithstanding, it is an uneasy hybrid of competing forms: Holocaust fable, crime thriller, true(ish) story, and moral inquiry.
The story begins in prewar Berlin, where master forger Salomon Sorowitsch, or “Sally” (Karl Markovics), is happily availing himself of the income, and feminine attentions, that accompany his profession. After receiving carnal compensation from a lady requesting a false passport, he sketches her portrait quickly but precisely. When she asks why he does not pursue a career as an artist, he replies, “Why earn money by making art? Earning money by making money is much easier.”
It turns out not to be quite so easy as he imagines, though, when Sally is arrested for counterfeiting and sent to a prison camp, where he’s put to work painting heroic likenesses of the reigning Nazis. A more strategic use for his talents is eventually conceived, however, and he is moved to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp to take part in “Operation Bernhard,” a massive counterfeiting scheme undertaken by the Third Reich in an effort to destabilize the economies of Britain and the United States. The Nazi in charge of the operation, Sturmbannführer Herzog (Devid Striesow), is a former policeman who once arrested Sally, and views him as a kind of friendly-adversary-turned-accomplice. In return for their efforts, Sally and his fellow forgers receive unimagined luxuries: clothes that are fresh (though the former property of dead men), showers once a week, a ping pong table, and, of course, the implicit assurance that they will not be gassed or shot for as long as they prove themselves useful.
The British pound proves relatively easy to counterfeit, but the dollar presents difficulties--not least because one member of Sally’s team, a handsome young radical named Burger (August Diehl), begins quietly sabotaging the effort. His steadfast refusal to be a cog in the Nazi war machine, while noble, could easily prove fatal, and not merely for him. And so the sides are set: collaboration versus resistance, compromised survival versus heroic martyrdom, the tangible value of another day of life versus the more uncertain ramifications of aiding the Reich.
Though each side is given its due, it is evident that the film’s sympathies lie with Sally--the crook, the survivor, the balancer of opposing imperatives--rather than with Burger, the uncompromising idealist. (This is despite the fact that the film is loosely based on the memoir of the real-life Burger.) There are hints that Sally also has less noble motivations--“Is this about surviving,” Burger asks him at one point, “or proving you can forge the dollar?”--but they are not explored. Unlike The Bridge on the River Kwai, the film which it most closely resembles in structure, The Counterfeiters never reinterprets its heroes as fools or vice versa. At moments when an irrevocable decision seems imminent--say, turn Burger in or accept mass executions--a third way out is usually found.
This kind of moral escape hatch is typical of thrillers, of course, but not of Holocaust stories--in which, by definition, there are rarely second options, let alone third ones--and it is one example of the precarious balancing act The Counterfeiters attempts. The backdrop of the Holocaust lends moral gravity to the crime story in the foreground, but at times a little more than it can comfortably bear. (Imagine, for a moment, how admirable Sally would seem if the story were told from the perspective of the doomed prisoners outside the counterfeiters’ cocoon of protection.)
But The Counterfeiter’s greatest misstep is its frame: The film opens and closes at the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo after the war, where Sally has arrived to gamble and philander with a briefcase full of forged bills. He is haunted, of course, but he is alive and well (and rich!), and by offering us this reassurance at the outset, the film drains itself of some tension and some moral weight as well. It is an odd Holocaust film that so eagerly advertises its (relatively) happy ending.
That the movie nonetheless works as well as it does is a tribute to writer-director Stefan Ruzowitzky and (especially) star Markovics. Ruzowitzky integrates his story’s disparate elements and tendencies neatly enough that the seams rarely show. And Markovics manages a similar feat within the character of Sally, capturing his venality and his pride, his con artistry and his honor, his will to survive and his willingness to sacrifice. Despite (at best) ordinary looks, Markovics is fiercely magnetic here, his eyes wary and intense under heavy, somnolent lids. In a film about counterfeits, he stands out as an original.
Christopher Orr is a senior editor at The New Republic.