As a criminal-about-town in the gripping Holocaust-era drama The Counterfeiters, Salomon ''Sally'' Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics) is a Russian-Jewish master forger in Berlin who knows how to print money. And dire imprisonment doesn't change his stripes: Thrown into a concentration camp, he continues his forgery career at the behest of his Nazi captors.
Austrian writer-director Stefan Ruzowitzky's taut, fact-based drama winner of this year's foreign-language Oscar stokes the heat of moral challenge with the filmmaker's observations about the limited power of ''good character.'' Rounded up by a cop (Devid Striesow) who later, as a Nazi commandant, comes to appreciate Sally's artistic skills, Sorowitsch is assigned to an unusual project at the Sachsenhausen camp: the forgery of British pound notes and U.S. dollars with which the Nazis intend to destabilize the world economy. The inmates who work with Sally, many of them plucked from certain death, are treated much better than the less useful, starving prisoners left behind in their labor-camp barracks. The forgers are supplied with decent food, beds with sheets, even opera music played on phonographs. But there's a cost, as each man must ask himself, What is survival worth?
Without doing anything so divisive as taking sides, The Counterfeiters pays sympathetic attention to those who play their cards to win even when the rules are terrible, not least because the remarkable Markovics, an Austrian TV actor with a pugnacious anvil of a head, is so riveting as an unsaintly survivor. The movie is based on a memoir by Adolf Burger (now in his 90s and living in Prague) about his own involvement with the Nazis' real counterfeiting effort, Operation Bernhard. Played in the movie by August Diehl (he looks like a sensitive poet), Burger is an idealistic left-wing activist who, unwilling to abet his captors, attempted sabotage by gumming up the mechanics of the process a noble gesture, yes, but one that put his coworkers' lives at serious risk. In contrast, Sally (based on Salomon Smolianoff, who died in Argentina in the 1960s, an art forger to the end) refused to allow the Nazis the pleasure of causing him to feel any shame at being alive a criminal code of honor that saved the hides of those around him.
Detaching character values of ''good'' and ''bad'' from the stories of those who did and didn't survive is newer territory for Holocaust movies (including The Pianist and Paul Verhoeven's Black Book) than it is for Holocaust literature. That may be, in part, because words allow for meditations on ambiguity while images stimulate our moviegoing instincts for immediate identification. Markovics, though, inhabits his not-nice character with such conviction, and with such little regard for what we think of Sally's choices, that we're freed to consider him as a man, not just a victim an authentic gift in a fascinating story of faking it. A–