Just when it seems like every possible human perspective on the Holocaust has been explored half a dozen times already, up pops a movie like the Foreign Language Academy Award contender The Counterfeiters, which tackles the subject in the usual time-approved, respectful ways, but at least finds new narrative ground to cover. The true story of a Nazi attempt to ruin the Allies' economies by flooding their markets with counterfeit cash, the film is based on the memoir of a man who was there. But while it's packed with telling detail, it's more packaged, calculated drama than raw history.
Karl Markovics stars as Salomon Sorowitsch, an infamous counterfeiter condemned to a concentration camp, both as a Jew and as a career criminal. Delivered into the keeping of the Nazi officer who first arrested him (played with alternating convivial smiles and villainous growls by Devid Striesow), Sorowitsch is tasked with leading a crew of captured forgers, designers, and printers in the attempt to perfectly reproduce the British pound. They're given comfortable beds and special privileges, but death threats come regularly, along with pointed sneers about how they should succeed, because Jews are good at "tricks and fakery." They're never at risk of forgetting the moral compromise involved in aiding the German war effort, because their captors abuse and belittle them outrageously—which robs the question of much of its nuance.
Writer-director Stefan Ruzowitzky strings a lot of emotional threads throughout the film, including a young Russian soldier who has to hide his tuberculosis or risk execution, and a principled communist (August Diehl, playing Adolf Burger, whose memoir inspired the film) sabotaging the forgery efforts, which endangers Sorowitsch's entire crew. But too many of those threads are marred with melodrama, a button-pushing lack of subtlety, and the kind of cliché that has most of the camp scenes rendered in pointedly dour grey.
But Markovics largely rescues the film with his mesmerizingly layered, steady performance as a man who solves the problem of compromise by refusing to admit that he's compromising. Early on, he explains that he won't give the Germans the satisfaction of making him feel guilty about survival, and he plays out that creed with a grim emotional absence that saves him from regret over his moral concessions, or fear as he risks his own skin on behalf of his confederates. Still, his emotional opacity makes some of his decisions impossible to comprehend, which is difficult to deal with in a film where everything else is so overdetermined and spelled-out. The Counterfeiters could stand to be a little more obvious about him, and less about absolutely everything else.