The Counterfeiters
Starring: Karl Markovics, August Diehl, Devid Striesow, Dolores Chaplin, and August Zirner. Directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky. 94 min. Rated R.

Every so often, charmingly naive people — often complete strangers — will e-mail, phone or otherwise accost me to ask my help in their upcoming Oscar pools, as though being a critic has something to do with knowing the minds of Academy. As if.

Trust me: My greatest insight into such things is that I shouldn’t enter Oscar pools. Not only will I lose, but — to paraphrase Paul Thomas Anderson — There Will Be Gloating. I’ve won only one of the half dozen pools I’ve been suckered into over the last two decades. Given that they usually involved more than a half dozen players, I guess I’m at least beating the monkey score.

Still, I never can resist the L.A. Times’ annual ballot, and, year after year, I have gotten two-thirds of the categories right, given or take one. More often than not, it is the foreign, doc, and shorts awards — the only areas where critics do have the advantage of special access — that have compensated for wrong choices in the “big” races.

This year, however, only one of the foreign nominees has been screened for critics — The Counterfeiters, from Austrian writer-director Stefan Ruzowitzky — so even we can’t make an educated guess.

My uneducated guess ranks Ruzowitzky’s chances as high. He is up against octogenarian Polish director Andrzej Wajda, whose best work was in the ’50s and ’60s; relatively obscure New York-born Israeli director Joseph Cedar; and two first-rate Russian directors, Nikita Mikhalkov and Sergei Bodrov. (Bodrov’s Mongol was entered by Kazakhstan. Insert your own Borat joke here.)

I would pick one of the Russians, but, against all logic, I can’t shake the notion that they’ll split their constituency. (What constituency? The “Russian bloc” in the Academy? What the hell am I talking about?) And The Counterfeiters benefits from the kind of subject matter and tone Academy voters love: Like Schindler’s List, it is a Holocaust movie — with hope. It is serious, but it is also conventional and commercially slick.

Film2We first meet Salomon “Sally” Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics) as a stone-faced high roller in Monte Carlo, some time after the war. We quickly flash back to Berlin ca. 1936, when he was high-spirited and sociable, a painter who has given up art in favor of a more practical use of his talents: forgery and counterfeiting. In a few brief scenes, Ruzowitzky lets us know that Sally doesn’t like to make waves. He doesn’t visibly bristle at offhanded anti-Semitic comments; he keeps an eye on the changing situation, as though it will somehow flow around him without effect.

But his instincts aren’t quite as tuned as he thinks: Before he knows what hit him, he is arrested by an Inspector Herzog (Devid Striesow) and hauled off to Mauthausen concentration camp. When the camp officials discover his talent, he manages to stay relatively privileged by painting their portraits.

Still, one day, late in the war, he is transferred to another camp to help out with a clever Nazi scheme, under the direction of none other than Inspector Herzog, now an SS commandant. Someone in Himmler’s employ has come up with the idea of flooding the market with huge sums of bogus British currency. The main purpose is to throw the Allied economy into chaos, but, of course, the money may also prove refreshing to the emptying Nazi coffers.

Herzog remembers what a brilliant forger Sally was in the old days, so he puts him in charge of the efforts. The team is an incongruous collection of inmates: An erstwhile banker is furious about having to work with criminals; his attempts to assert class rank and moral superiority are pathetic within the context.

But they all have one basic thing in common: Ethnically, they are all Jews, though we never get the sense that the others are any more religiously or even culturally attached to Jewish identity than the wholly assimilated Sally. Some seem to have accepted that their loved ones have all been wiped out; others walk a thin line between survival and madness. They are constantly aware that they are surviving on a provisional basis, by helping the very people they despise.

Most of the older men are … what? Pragmatic? Broken? Amoral? But there is also the defiant young Communist printer Adolf Burger (August Diehl), who — Sally comes to realize — is sabotaging the project. Sally, however, is still bound by a criminal’s code of honor not to rat him out. And there are side benefits to Burger’s dangerous game: Not only do they hinder the Nazi cause, but they also serve to keep the prisoners alive longer. Sally is OK with delaying things as long as the SS will tolerate. The trick is in knowing exactly how long that is.

We know from the opening scenes that Sally will survive, but we don’t about the others. Nor do we know how he will deal with the guilt and the necessary suppression of all the anger welling up within.

It is no surprise that Burger comes across as the most heroic character: The film is based on the real Burger’s memoir, The Devil’s Workshop. Sally is a rebadged version of Salomon Smolianoff, a famous swindler of the era (the press notes tell us). Liberties are taken with the chronology and some other details. For obvious professional reasons, Smolianoff was an elusive character. While Ruzowitzky and Markovics inevitably create an inner life for him, they also honor the mystery of the real forger.

Film3The only Ruzowitzky films to get even brief American releases in recent years were his medical thrillers Anatomie (2000) and Anatomie 2 (2002), with Franka Potente. I’ve only seen the second, in which Diehl was the star, but it was depressingly indistinguishable from a million other Grand Guignol exercises.

One has to go back almost a decade, to The Inheritors, Ruzowitzky’s second feature, to find some connection to The Counterfeiters. That story, about a band of peasants coping with the gift of their late boss’s farm, was certainly a good deal lighter in tone. But the two films share a certain moral acceptance: Ruzowitzky likes to pose questions and clarify the contradictions around them, but he doesn’t pretend to have the answers.

In real life, moral issues tend to be more complex and nuanced than in philosophy classes, where thought experiments are constructed in often surreal ways to make a point. But one of the reasons films about World War II and the Holocaust continue to be made is that the Nazis’ actions were so extreme that real life became as unlikely as such didactic contrivances.

Is Sally a selfish scoundrel? A hero? A man doing the best he can in a horribly untenable situation? This is the question that makes him the natural protagonist, rather than Burger, who knows exactly where he stands. When one of the men angrily tells Burger, “Nobody’s prepared to die for a principle,” Burger fires back, “That’s why the Nazis’ tactics work.”

He is right, but how many of us can say for sure how we would have behaved in the midst of a seemingly endless nightmare?