Films dealing with the Holocaust bear special burdens, not the least of which is the desire to do justice to the dead without turning them into mere objects of pity or sentimental stereotypes. For this reason and many others, "The Counterfeiters," winner of the 2008 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, is an especially impressive achievement. "Schindler's List" made its indelible impressions with epic sweep and cinematic grandeur. "The Counterfeiters," by contrast, is a gritty, intimate film that focuses on a small band of specially treated -- although still brutalized Jewish prisoners, whose usefulness to the Nazis spares them from the worst the camps have to offer but at the same time ensnares them in a dreadful moral maze.
Based on an actual German plot to undermine the Allied economies by flooding them with millions of bogus banknotes, "The Counterfeiters" shows us artisan prisoners compelled to become their jailors' accomplices by forging dollars and pounds. Chief among them is Sally Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics), an amoral survivor who before the war drove a roaring trade faking passports at a steep price for those trying to flee the impending disaster.
Under the sometimes smiling, sometimes scowling direction of an SS major (Devid Striesow), the prisoners bargain for time, for food, for medication, their work only occasionally interrupted by shrieks or gunfire coming from the camp beyond their fenced-in shacks. At any moment, however, violence or dehumanizing humiliation can come crashing down on them.
Again and again the prisoners must weigh their own and their comrades' lives against the damage to the Allies that their work might be doing (in fact, the cockamamie plan came to nothing in the end). They thus find themselves in territory where everyday morality proves a nearly useless guide. When one prisoner (August Diehl) comes to the conclusion that only frank, if suicidal, resistance will do, he practically comes to blows with the worldlier Sally.
We aren't asked to take sides between them or to derive a pat lesson from their suffering. Bolstered by performances of great integrity, "The Counterfeiters" does not despair of the human race, but it suggests that some calamities are too deep for any moral to redeem. (R) 98 min. S