The two adjectives of my chosen title sum up what I consider to be the main qualities of this ultimately impressive movie. Technically, the image-making is flawed; so obviously so, that I wonder whether the otherwise commendable director,Stefan Ruzowitsky, is a member of that loonie left brigade, Dogme 95, led by the perverse cineaste Lars Von Trier, whose canon laws include the injunction to use only a hand-held camera when filming to ensure an honest and realistic visual creation, but one certain to give the viewer a headache and double vision. Fortunately, he has not adhered to another dogma of the group: the abolition of scenery and its replacement by chalk marks as implemented by the aforementioned Lars in two of his earlier films of this century. On the contrary, Ruzowitsky's shaking camera conjures up the full horror of the concentration camps as well as the contrasting comfort in which the Counterfeiters lived and worked. The eyes can literally smell the blood, sweat and - yes - piss! This moving intensity is carried over into his presentation of the protagonists and gives the film its astonishing power.
The story will probably be familiar to most readers of my review. It describes the setting up by the SS of a Special Division operated by Jewish camp inmates from various walks of life, each of whom has some skill or training useful in the forging of passports and other documents. The principal objective becomes the reproduction of various denominations of the Pound Sterling, an aim so perfectly accomplished that the counterfeit notes are certified as genuine by an expert panel of the Bank of England, and sufficient are produced to comfortably surpass the entire reserves of the United Kingdom. Buoyed by this success, the SS sets its sights on the American Dollar with the objective of destroying the US economy and giving the German Treasury a badly-needed infusion of foreign capital. At this point the Counterfeiters split into two camps. One, led by the eloquent Adolph Burger (admirably played by August Diehl) want to sabotage the project as a means of slowing down the Nazi war effort. The other, represented by the slimey furtive "Sally", the main character in the movie and its anti-hero ( a bravura performance here from the gifted Karl Marcovics) know full well that they will be slaughtered like their fellow-Jews in the event of failure. They value their own survival above the destruction of the Third Reich, and are willing to accomodate the wishes of the genial, brutal, cowardly SS head of the Special Division (David Striesow). The tug-of-war between these irreconcilable objectives is what gives the film its tension, and it is cleverly exploited by Ruzowitsky. This is much rawer and less sentimental than most of the many Holocaust movies that have been made over the years since 1945. The animal brutality of the prison guards is uncompromisingly illustrated, but so too is the rage of Jew against Jew, as well as heart-warming examples of man's humanity to man. The moral battle between good and evil, or rather between good and not-so-good, is painted in dramatic colours by a director who knows how to get the best out of his full ensemble as well as his highly talented principles. It is a battle to which there is not a complete resolution, because evil had no end, just as it has no well-defined beginning. And the drama is heightened by the fact that this being the closing months of the war, the tramp of Red Army boots on their way to Berlin can almost be heard off stage. But it was a bad script-writing decision to give away too much of the final outcome at the very beginning of the film.
Ruzowitsky shows commendable skill in his cuting and editing, and in his overall pacing of the story. The 2007 Oscar for Best Foreign Movie is well merited. The English subtitles are big and bold, a much-appreciated blessing, as I first played this two days after my second cataract operation. Finally,the extras are well worth having. They include moving interviews with some whose lives are celebrated in this non-fictional narrative; but we could have done without the awful trailers of execrable films that Sony Pictures intends to foist upon the DVD-loving public.