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.
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 FiveEndText