This most recent Best Foreign Film Oscar winner is, yes, yet another Holocaust movie, but it stands out for uncovering a strange bit of Nazi history little-known to the outside world: as Germany was losing the war, the Reich actually began counterfeiting English and American money in order to stay afloat financially, and they employed Jewish concentration camp prisoners who had backgrounds in the financial and printing worlds to create the phony currency.
Stefan Ruzowitzky's fictionalized look at those involved in "Operation Bernhard" is based on the true accounts of one of the film's main characters, Adolf Burger, who is still alive today. As such, Burger – here portrayed as a hot-headed leftwing idealist – provides the moral conscience of the story as he butts heads with the film's lead, the fictional Salomon Sorowitsch, a master counterfeiter who must find his own soul in the camps as he is faced with the decision to save his own skin or to sabotage the Nazis' plans for the greater good of his fellow victims.
I was hoping for more of the moral ambiguity promised by the film, but without giving anything away, the story ultimately opts for the usual "Nazis evil and cruel/Jews tragic and heroic" stuff. And while that may have been the case in real life, I suspect that, human relationships being what they are, there was a lot more gray area to mine in the story.
I couldn't really buy Sorowitsch's arc from selfish cad to noble hero because the character, though well-played by Karl Markovics, is rarely given any great moral dilemma. He doesn't seem like that bad of a sort to start with, and Ruzowitzsky misses a rich dramatic opportunity where Sorowitsch could have been gambling the life of one sick prisoner against the troublesome Burger, but instead all too readily takes the high road. (Of course, if Burger had been killed, he never would have written the memoir on which The Counterfeiters is based, and we'd have no movie.)
Still, it's an interesting chapter of World War II history, it's perfectly acted, and I'm glad to finally watch a Holocaust drama where everybody is actually speaking German, as they would have in real life. One's imagination can only stretch so far when watching Ben Kingsley or Adrien Brody hold forth in accented English; a German cast simply adds authenticity and immediacy.