The Counterfeiters, this year's Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film, is a true story set in 1946 that follows a brooding, nameless gambler (Karl Markovics) who, in the opening shot of the film, comes to Monte Carlo with a bag full of money and no other form of identity.
He sits by the oceanside outside his hotel, contemplating something with grave concern, when suddenly, the film, in one quick and remarkable cut, goes back 10 years to Berlin where the same man socializes at a restaurant teaming with Nazi sympathizers. This man is quick and charismatic, far different from the one seen on the beach only moments before.
We discover, in a brief exchange, that his name is Salamon Sorowisch, a renowned Jewish counterfeiter who is secretly preparing to flee the country.
The juxtaposition between these two separate, profoundly changed moments in time, and the artful fluidity in which they fall into the same, seamless train of thought, is a testament to director Stefan Ruzowitzky's ability to unearth Sorowisch's exhausting emotional journey through the striking immediacy of his filmmaking.
Although The Counterfeiters follows a formula similar to other Holocaust dramas, it remains thrillingly unpredictable due mainly to the film's swift and relentless pacing. It never lets up and it chooses to follow Salamon's story over the generalized, sweeping narrative of previous films set in the era.
That said, the brutality and terror of the Nazi regime is still vividly explored by Ruzowitzky, who isn't afraid to shy away from the terrible crimes committed in Mauthausen, the concentration camp that Salamon is initially forced to work in after he is captured.
However, The Counterfeiters is ultimately more interested in the morality of its central characters, particularly in Salamon, who falls into a fascinating ethical dilemma once the Nazis assign him the job of forging the British pound and the U.S. dollar.
Though his prime concern is to save his own life at whatever cost, he is fully aware of the potentially devastating ramifications he could inflict on Europe's economy if he were to continue printing money for the Nazis. To make matters worse, one of Salamon's friends and fellow prisoners, Adolf (August Diehl), continues to intentionally destroy the dollar prints that Markovics has so meticulously crafted, arguing that personal integrity is a greater good than mere survival.
The tension that mounts between their opposing views becomes unbearably suspenseful once the guards begin to sense that something is wrong, and the film, while remaining respectful to the gravity of its subject matter, becomes a sort of strange and enthralling thriller in its own right.
The Counterfeiters thankfully never slips into full genre mode (like 2006's superficial Black Book) and it insists on remaining morally ambiguous, avoiding a simplistic study in good versus evil, a la Tim Blake Nelson's one dimensional, The Grey Zone.
The Counterfeiters cares most about dissecting the basic question of what is right and what is wrong in times of war and whether or not one's circumstances can ethically justify an act usually considered unethical.
Mind you, this question is not directed at the Nazis, who are beyond the point of moral or ethical consideration, but at the Jewish laborers who are inadvertently forced to aid Hitler's regime. Do they make the bank notes and live to see another day, or do they defy the regime and get murdered?
Ruzowitzky has proven with his new film that the Holocaust, however difficult it may be to stomach, contains the timeless and essential theme of human survival. It is a theme that has already been explored in great films like Schindler's List and The Pianist and it continues to grow in scope and power in the beautifully-executed The Counterfeiters.