The Counterfeiters (15)

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The Independent Culture

It's almost unfeasible to set a film in a Nazi concentration camp, in part because the conditions were so terrible that to recreate them is to trivialise them, and in part because the prisoners had next to no control over their lives, which pretty much rules them out as movie heroes. The Counterfeiters is an Austro-German film which circumvents both of these barriers by telling the true story of some prisoners who – relatively speaking – had a measure of comfort and autonomy. It stars the magnetic, Easter Island-faced Karl Markovics as Salomon, a Russian Jewish forger who lives the high life in 1930s Berlin until the fraud squad catches up with him, and he's sent to Sachsenhausen. The Nazis are planning to wreck the British and American economies by flooding them with forgeries of the pound and the dollar, and Salomon is assigned to oversee a counterfeiting workshop staffed by his fellow inmates. In exchange for their labours, they're housed in separate barracks from the rest of the camp. They're allowed to wear proper clothes and eat proper food, and their dormitory has proper beds. There's even a ping-pong table – a touch of generosity which the SS commandant is slimily pleased with.

Salomon has no qualms about the job. For him, it's a matter of survival – and, some of his colleagues suspect, of professional pride. But not everyone in the workshop is persuaded. If the forgery fails, they'll be shot. But if it's perfected, it could hasten a Nazi victory. And, anyway, should the counterfeiters accept the privileges of their "golden cage" when other captives are being brutalised a few metres away?

The film is based on the memoirs of Adolf Burger, who is portrayed as an idealistic firebrand, but Stefan Rozowitzky's script keeps our sympathies flitting between everyone in the workshop. Salomon has his own criminal code – you don't squeal on your mates – while one man objects to the operation on the simple grounds that forgery is against the law.

The Counterfeiters is less sentimental and more provocative than any Hollywood movie which has dared to imagine concentration camp life, and yet it's not afraid to be a fast, gripping, accessible thriller. Following the likes of Downfall and The Lives of Others, it's the latest in a wave of German and Austrian films which address their countries' darkest hours with supreme skill and confidence.