This year's Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film, The Counterfeiters, asks you to look at criminals with a little perspective.
The hero of this true story, after all, is a convicted con artist, a Russian Jew who became known as the "King of Counterfeiters." In the 1930s, he was living the high life before being arrested and ending up in a concentration camp. His crimes, forging everything from currency to passports, were great, and under normal circumstances any ethical human being would want him to be punished. But when was the last time you felt anything but sympathy for someone in Auschwitz? And what would you do if your only chance of survival involved aiding the Nazis?
Writer-director Stefan Ruzowitzky adapted The Counterfeiters from the memoirs of Adolf Burger, and though the film never forgets its setting, its greatest achievement is that it's a Holocaust story that doesn't bludgeon you with the fact. Rather, it focuses on the unlikely conflicts of conscience that arise when a small group of prisoners find themselves in a relatively hopeful predicament: Chosen for their skills as craftsmen, Salomon Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics), Adolf Burger (August Diehl) and a few others are moved to a better facility. There the shower chambers are actually used for bathing and the formerly death-sentenced are granted more time in exchange for their services helping the Germans fund their war effort.
Markovics' Salomon is instantly respectable despite his nefarious past, with the actor and his impossibly triangular, cartoonishly criminal-perfect head projecting all the intelligence, logic and charisma of cinema's most compelling felons. While other prisoners, especially Burger, feel guilty about those left back in the camps and then angry about what they are asked to do, Salomon coolly reasons with them "A day is a day," he says and often saves their lives by covering up their increasing unwillingness to play along. Like a mob boss, he takes care of them but also isn't above knocking someone back in line for the welfare of all involved.
The Counterfeiters' milieu is predominantly grimy, gray and blue, and there are agonizing moments that remind you of the brutality the prisoners' "employers" are capable of. The dexterity of the script is such that each time, for instance, some poor soul is shot point-blank or a letter arrives informing a man of his family's murder, you understand Salomon's thinking and then concede that Burger has a point, as well.
The film not only prompts a fresh discussion about a much-dissected time period, it creates characters that are allowed to bloom underneath the weight of the tragedy itself.