Austrian director Fritz Ruzowitzky begins the story post-war at a casino where Salomon "Sally" Sorowitsch (played with mesmerizing intensity by Karl Markovics) literally begins anew with haircut, shave, clothing, high-stakes poker and a briefcase full of U.S. dollars.
From this prologue, the film jumps back to shady underworld Berlin, where Sorowitsch is arrested as a master counterfeiter just prior to the war. Ruzowitzky then hurtles his character down the rabbit hole into the unthinkable world of the concentration camps, where hope is a laughable four-letter word and survival is the coin of the realm.
In Ruzowitzky's hands, The Counterfeiters is not so much about Nazis persecuting Jews as it is an exploration of the choices people make while balancing on the razor's edge of imminent death.
By printing money for the Nazis, were the prisoners prolonging the war and increasing the death toll? Idealism crashes into pragmatism, then gets swallowed by the wolfish hunger to stay alive one more day.
Is it merely pride that drives Sorowitsch to fake the dollar perfectly? Is it selfishness that drives idealistic printer Adolf Burger, who learns of his wife's death in Auschwitz, to urge sabotage -- knowing that it will get everyone shot, not just himself?
The acting is powerful across the board, especially once the film moves to the confined world of the counterfeiting factory, located in two sealed-off barracks in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp.
The film is based on true events, the screenplay informed by the razor-sharp memories of survivor Adolf Burger -- an energetic 90-year-old Czech printer who is showcased in more than an hour of worthwhile bonus materials.
In the most interesting featurette, "Adolf Burger's Artifacts," Burger speaks more factually of the counterfeiting but no less powerfully than the feature film.
"We were dead men on holiday," Burger says. "We never expected to walk away alive from a secret operation." (Rated R)