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The Counterfeiters

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Rating: * * * *

Verdict: Bleak and brilliant concentration-camp drama is also a potent moral fable.

We know Salomon Sorowitsch is a survivor when we first meet him, in Monte Carlo, just after the war, betting everything on the roulette wheel and losing with a single-minded recklessness. The concern of this bleak and brilliant movie, the winner of the best foreign film Oscar, is not that - or even how - he emerged alive from a concentration camp, but the price he pays for it. 

From the story of Operation Bernhard, a counterfeiting operation by which the Nazis hoped to destabilise the economies of Britain and the US, Austrian writer-director Ruzowitzky has conjured a taut and compelling drama that is also a meditation on the nature of moral courage. His film's Sorowitsch, known as Sali, is a man who prizes pragmatism above principle; what the film asks - without offering easy answers - is whether principle is worth dying for.

Sali enjoys the good life in the 1930s Berlin. As the so-called "King of Forgers", his watchword is that the Jews face no danger if they just "learn to adapt" - a theory that works  until he is arrested.

When war breaks out he is moved from prison to a concentration camp, where he puts his forgery skills to work for the cause of the Reich. The wages of collaboration are plain - good food, comfortable beds, clean linen - but Sali and his workmates in their "golden cage" cannot help but see the suffering of other prisoners.

Never gratuitously explicit, Ruzowitzky's film achieves its impact with passing moments, closely observed: a pile of passports brought in for the forgers' attention is the detritus of casually destroyed lives and the few killings are almost glanced at rather than lingered over, which makes them somehow more horrific.

The film's source material is a memoir, The Devil's Workshop, by Adolf Burger, the only unfictionalised character in the film. As played by Diehl, he is the film's moral centre of gravity, the man who urges sabotage that amounts to suicide. Sali, for his part, says he'd "rather be gassed tomorrow than shot for nothing today".

How it all plays out is best not revealed here but it gives nothing away to say that the end returns to the opening: Sali has left the casino and sits on the beach at Monte Carlo, where he is asked whether he has had some bad luck. He smiles. It's hard to imagine a moment that more completely - or perfectly - defines the much-misunderstood concept of irony.

Peter Calder

Cast: Karl Markovics, August Diehl, David Striesow

Director: Stefan Ruzowitzky

Running time: 99 mins

Rating: R13 (violence, content may disturb)

Screening: Bridgeway, Lido, Rialto

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