Cultures make movies about the wars that matter to them. In this country, the catastrophe in Iraq is on everyone's mind, but in Europe, World War II remains the conflict of choice, and "The Counterfeiters" is one result.
The engrossing film is from Austria and won this year's Oscar for best foreign-language film. "The Counterfeiters" demonstrates that no matter how many Holocaust stories the movies tell, there are always new and unexpected ones waiting to be revealed.
Written and directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky and based loosely on real events, "The Counterfeiters" deals, as its title hints, with a Nazi plot to counterfeit British pounds and American dollars on such a massive scale that the economies of both countries would be destroyed.
The film's style is mainstream and straight-ahead, but because the counterfeiting was done in the Nazi concentration camp at Sachsenhausen and the technicians involved were almost all Jews, "The Counterfeiters" raises some provocative moral dilemmas.
Also unexpected is the fact that the film's protagonist is not some idealist or square-jawed heroic type but a furtive and ferret-faced habitual criminal called Salomon "Sally" Sorowitsch, aka "the King of Counterfeiters," and played with fine disgruntled panache by Karl Markovics.
We meet Sorowitsch in a brief prelude in Monte Carlo after the war is over, but the film soon flashes back to Berlin, 1936. The Nazis are already in power, but this Jewish scoundrel and a half, who believes anything and everything is for sale, is convinced that his infinite adaptability will save him from any harm.
What it doesn't save him from is being arrested and sent to a camp at Mauthausen for five years, where his nerve and ability to work the angles keep him relatively safe. His job is camp artist, his mantra survival, his motto "one adapts or dies."
It's the film's conceit that Frederich Herzog (Devid Striesow), the officer who arrested Sorowitsch in Berlin, ends up running the counterfeiting team at Sachsenhausen and remembers his old nemesis. (In reality, as detailed in Lawrence Malkin's "Krueger's Men," it was run by an engineer named Bernhard Krueger -- hence the project's Operation Bernhard name -- who had no personal knowledge of the counterfeiter.)
Whoever was in charge, the group of prisoners assembled in Block 19 at Sachsenhausen, which included experts in printing and banking, was kept separate from the rest of the camp. These prisoners were allowed special privileges, such as better beds and the use of classical music to drown out the noises of the horrors outside.
In return, they were expected to pitch in and help create perfect counterfeit copies, first of the pound and then the dollar. "We're on the same side now," the Nazi Herzog tells his team, and he means it.
"The Counterfeiters'" look at the mechanics of currency duplication is fascinating, but the real drama of the film is the conflict that develops between Sorowitsch and another member of the team, printer Adolf Burger (August Diehl).
Burger is a political radical whose principles don't allow him to cooperate in a project that, if successful, would incontestably help the Nazis win the war. For him, sabotage is the only answer, even if it means martyrdom.
Sorowitsch takes the opposite point of view. Someone who "won't give the Nazis the pleasure of being ashamed to be alive," he feels with equal passion that "only by surviving can we defeat them" and that anything that risks death is a terrible mistake.
Writer-director Ruzowitzky, who falls into schematic moments from time to time, brings the film alive during these confrontations and their aftermath. One of the reasons World War II stories still fascinate Europeans is that the dilemmas presented continue to have challenging echoes into the present day.