For the prisoners in Blocks 18 and 19 of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, meals were served, beds provided, light opera floated from the speakers. There was even a ping-pong table to play on.
But as writer-director Stefan Ruzowitzky shows, powerfully, affectingly, in The Counterfeiters, the privileges experienced by this small team of Jews and criminals came at a price. Printers, artists, bankers, forgers - they were shipped from other camps to work on "Operation Bernhard," a Nazi scheme to destroy the British and U.S. economies by flooding them with millions in fake pounds and dollars.
If the men balked at their task - in effect helping Hitler win the war - they were sent to another cell, where cries of pain, and occasional gunfire, were audible through their flimsy wooden walls.
Moral uncertainty, survivor's guilt - accepting personal comfort knowing full well that others were being starved, tortured, gassed - that was their lot in life. But maybe they were going to have a life. That was the trade-off.
Winner of the foreign-language prize at this year's Oscars, The Counterfeiters centers on Salomon Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics), a figure in the prewar Berlin underworld known for his skills as a forger of passports and currency. It is Sorowitsch, rounded up by a policeman-turned-Nazi officer (Devid Striesow), who is selected to lead the counterfeiting project in the camp. (Operation Bernhard was a real SS undertaking, and The Counterfeiters is based in part on the accounts of two surviving prisoners involved in its operation.)
Quiet, watchful, out for himself, Sorowitsch is a complicated figure - neither hero nor villain, and certainly no fool. The Austrian actor Markovics is riveting in the role; he is wiry, anticipatory, his eyes darting with intelligence and worry.
Filmmaker Ruzowitzky, also Austrian, bookends The Counterfeiters with scenes of Sorowitsch after the war: We know from the movie's first shots that he survived his ordeal in the camps, but that knowledge doesn't defuse the suspense. Rather, it adds to the mystery: How did the ace forger and his cohorts in the camp survive? What choices did they have to make? What soul-shattering compromises, betrayals? Was there defiance, revolt, sacrifice, sabotage?
Those questions ricochet around The Counterfeiters like gunfire.
The Counterfeiters ***1/2 (out of four stars)
Directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky. With Karl Markovics, August Diehl and Devid Striesow. Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics. In German with subtitles.
Running time: 1 hour, 38 mins.
Parent's guide: R (violence, atrocities, profanity, nudity, sex, adult themes)
Playing at: Ritz Five
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.