A serious contender for one of this year's Bears, even a Golden one, Stefan Ruzowitzky's The Counterfeiters retells the Nazi attempt to sink the Allied economy by flooding it with counterfeit money. The film successfully tackles two issues. The first is whether concentration camp prisoners should have co-operated in a plot that might have lost the Allies the war and, ultimately, caused their own annihilation. The second is that of the Holocaust, retelling extensively the horrors of the camps.
If Ruzowtzky's approach gives the morality case a fair and earnest shot, putting the Holocaust back on screen is far more complex, for cinema can never begin to match the real thing.
But Ruzowitzky emerges from the exercise practically unscathed, thanks to an astounding and carefully calibrated performance by Karl Markovits. The Counterfeiters should follow Schindler's List, The Pianist and other Holocaust-related features onto the front page in the shape of what is today termed as 'serious entertainment'.
Festivals and arthouses will welcome it while critics will appreciate its severe demeanor and sober rendition of historical facts, drawn from the testimony of Adolf Burger, an inmate at the Sachsenhausen and his published memoir.
Salli Sorowitsch (Karl Markovits), a Russian Jew with a genius for forgery, is arrested in Berlin in 1936, sent to prison, then a concentration camp where he finds favour painting guards' portraits.
Transferred by 1944 to Sachsenhausen, he is given special privileges and eventually forges enemy currency. Told as a long flashback, the script tries to gradually build up the dilemma of a born survivor and former bon-vivant who, after years in the camps, chooses to shake hand with the devil and live.
It contrasts him with other inmates, who insists it is morally imperative everyone to resist evil, even if it costs them their lives. Despite the odd melodramatic moment, most of the film is kept on a strict leash, though the incidents it recounts, as shocking as they are, feel over-familiar because they resemble similar material that film has explored before.
Ruzowitzky, a largely sensitive director, refrains from turning Sorowitsch into a hero. In this he is helped by the clever casting of Markovits, who has tremendous screen presence but is not too much the matinee idol. August Diehl, as Adolf Burger, goes for a much more stentorial performance as the idealist who would rather die than help the Nazis.
Discussing art direction or cinematography in such cases is painful, if only because of the necessity to compare with the documents, but at least no one will probably accuse Ruzowitzky of being less than politically correct with his film, and that is usually recognised these days with an award.
Stefan Ruzowitzky, from the book The Devil's Workshop by Adolf Burger