Just as important as a film's artistry is its honesty. Honesty is as difficult to come by in art as it is in life for many reasons — not the least of which is our tendency to pretty up the truth, to give in to temptation and sprinkle saccharine all over it.
This is particularly true when the truth involves tragedy. Facing real tragedy honestly is not something we're very good at as a species, and so, in art as well as life, we use tricks that help us to look over the tragedy without looking directly at it. Moralizing is a good method, as is lionizing those on our side and demonizing those on the other.
How liberating it is, then, to find a film that deals with not just a tragedy but, to Western culture, THE tragedy — the Holocaust — and does so without even a tinge of purple. That's “The Counterfeiters,” a story of concentration camp victims hired to help the Reich win the War. Its refusal to tell you pretty things is precisely what makes it one of the best films about the Holocaust ever made.
It's a dramatization of the largest counterfeiting operation in history, Germany's program to create perfect forgeries of British and U.S. bank notes to fund their war machine and try to cripple their enemies' economies. To this end, they pull a number of Jewish printers and engravers from the concentration camps, put them to work, and have the whole project overseen by master counterfeiter Salomon Sorowitsch.
Sorowitsch is a Russian Jewish immigrant who found abundant wealth and sex through forgery. He is pragmatic, an assimilationist. His lush life is ripped from him by the Reich when he is finally caught and thrown into hard labor camps, only to be restored by that same Reich when they realize his potential to make them very wealthy. Sorowitsch and his crew are given what is to them a lavish gated community, outside of which there is the torture and murder of the concentration camp. Within those walls are soft mattresses and ample food and another day of life, and the only price is their complicity in helping their captors win the war. That, and ignoring the cries of those who were not so lucky.
The story, then, is the story of their practical and moral dilemmas. To refuse to comply possibly means sabotaging the war effort, but certainly means death. To comply means life and relative comfort, but life and comfort in a cage, laden with guilt and shame. “The Counterfeiters” gives us both sides sympathetically, refuses to take the easy path of casually damning the collaborators, makes us honestly question how we would behave in such conditions.
Sorowitsch never apologizes for his decisions, remains ever the pragmatist, and carries the weight of his choices as far as he can, breaking only when he can carry it no further. The crew's idealist and saboteur also bears his own weight, knowing that by stopping the program, he is condemning his friends to death. Watching them grapple with their condition is painful because it is tangible and real. It's also beautifully written, directed and acted, of course — so much so that you'll forget you're watching anything other than the truth.