What we call the moral compass often fails to operate in the fog of war. This is the subject of the Austrian film The Counterfeiters, winner of this year's Oscar for Best Foreign Film.
Salomon "Sally" Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics) is a Russian Jew in Germany before World War II who puts his keen artistic eye to use as a forger of passports, cash and other valuable items. Unlike Hitler, Sally is not a frustrated art student; he has no desire to make art when making money is so much more lucrative. This perspective serves him well after he is busted for counterfeiting and sent to the brutal Mauthausen concentration camp.
Sally uses his skills to curry favor with his captors by becoming the resident portrait artist. Then he's moved to the camp at Sachsenhausen at the behest of the German officer who arrested him in 1936 and still remembers the forger's unique skills. There, Sally is made the head of a special unit of currency counterfeiting. It's a project based on the true story of Operation Bernhard, in which the Germans planned to destabilize international economies by flooding the market with bogus British pound notes and American dollars. Sally is also based on a real figure named Salomon Smolianoff, as recalled by Adolf Burger in his recent memoir about his time as a prisoner in the unit.
Unlike most Holocaust movies, The Counterfeiters emphasizes personal moral choices rather than the overall horror and despair. The two barracks of Jews working on the project are kept in what they call a "golden cage," in which they have enough to eat, beds with clean linen, and piped-in opera music to drown out the sounds of the murders committed on the other side of their thin plywood walls. The prisoners' dilemma over whether to assist the Germans and thereby ensure their continued survival is the heart of the movie.
Director Stefan Ruzowitsky moves The Counterfeiters along at a fast clip, covering a lot of ground in an hour and a half. And Markovics' stark demeanor speaks volumes. In such hands, The Counterfeiters becomes the real deal.