Before I start, I need to get this off of my chest: The Counterfeiters is good enough that it very well might have been the best of the five nominees for Best Foreign Film at this year's Oscars, and that being the case, it's all the more obnoxious that 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days didn't get noticed.*

Do I mean to say that The Counterfeiters is a bad movie? No. But it is very simple movie in ways that it probably shouldn't be. This is a film set during the Holocaust, yet not about the Holocaust; it is in many ways a fairly conventional thriller that uses the Holocaust as set dressing. There's nothing terribly bad about that - we live in a world with death camp pornography, so in the grand scheme a death camp thriller is positively classy - except that the film clearly wants to be a Serious Motion Picture "about" the Holocaust, whether the storyline and its execution support that desire or not. Hence we have a thriller that is much too glum and miserabilist to be very entertaining, and a Holocaust drama that is much, much too sleek and suspenseful to add anything of merit to the several hundred films already made on the same subject.

The story, at least, is one that most of us haven't encountered before, and all (loosely) based in fact: in 1936, the charming Sally Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics), master counterfeiter and Jew, is arrested in Berlin by the Nazi officer Friedrich Herzog (Devid Striesow), and sent away to the prison camp at Mauthausen, where he quickly ingratiates himself with the powers-that-be by proving himself a good hand at portraiture. Years later, his talents are noticed, and he is plucked from the camp and brought to Sachsenhausen, where that same Herzog, since promoted to the rank of Sturmbannführer, is overseeing a massive counterfeiter operation, seeking to create the perfect replica of the British pound sterling and the American dollar, with the ultimate aim of flooding those countries' markets and destabilising their economies. Sorowitsch's rag-tag team is the usual sort: young Kolya (Sebastian Urzendowsky), a Russian like Sally, anxious to hide his tuberculosis from the Nazis lest he be shot; Klinger (August Zirner), a Jewish doctor charged with keeping the prisoners in good health, et cetera. As far as the film is concerned, the most important is Adolf Burger (August Diehl), a principled Socialist who would rather die than contribute to the Nazi war effort. Most of the film revolves around the conflict between Sorowitsch and Burger over how far is too far in the struggle to remain alive.

There are strong reasons for the film to exist, but they certainly do not include its ethical contemplations, which aren't nearly interesting enough or smart enough to be any sort of recommendation. The idea that only the bad people were equipped to survive the Holocaust is not new, and it's been barely half a decade since the topic was treated much more effectively in Roman Polanski's The Pianist. The chief problem is that The Counterfeiters has such a callow concept about what "the Holocaust" and "the Nazi war effort" actually mean; my temptation is to blame the breakneck speed with which the story moves through its exposition, as most of the early scenes exist only to set up plot points or demonstrate that Sally is mostly a selfish guy, but don't show much of anything about how dreadful life was in the camps; by the time major plot points hinge on things like "you might die just because the Germans don't like your last name," it could just as easily be any random gangster movie as a film set in the largest systematic genocide in history. The framework narrative, presenting the whole story as Sorowitsch's reminiscences from Monte Carlo years later, doesn't do the film any favors, either; it reduces the story to a guy ashamed of his past.

Still, though it's a disaster as a serious look at the Holocaust, The Counterfeiters isn't half bad as an entertainment, even though it's not very "entertaining." The three lead performances are all fairly strong: as Burger, Diehl is angry and principled without seeming like a noble martyr, but rather something of a bullying asshole; as Herzog, Striesow is both threatening and charming, played with an undercurrent of obvious fear about what happens if things go wrong that gives the film the closest it has to historical perspective. But it's Markovics who stands out in every scene, an amazing self-contained creation of jangling nerves fighting for supremacy with the need to seem cool and in control at every moment. He is both charismatic and repellent, a combination with a long and fine pedigree in the cinema, and although we never quite "like" him, he makes for a perfectly compelling protagonist.

Director Stefan Ruzowitzky keeps the film moving quickly, but I'm not sure that his contributions are quite as important to the sense of constant danger in the film as those of cinematographer Benedict Neuenfels, who combines two of the great clichés in modern European films, bleached-out greys and a constantly shaky handheld camera, and manages to make them seem fresh and interesting. Or at least well-suited to the film at hand. It's his use of a handheld camera that particularly excited me; I've been over that technique for a long time, but its use here is perhaps the single most important factor in keeping this thriller thrilling. As the image is hardly ever at rest, the audience (if only subconsciously) begins to feel a constant sense of unease, an extra wariness about what's going on and what's coming next.

I guess the worst you could say is that it's memorably diverting, but as worsts go, that's a pretty damning indictment of a Holocaust movie. The film is more than competent, and it goes by quickly, but it lacks something, a strong framework to hang upon. My complaint isn't that it lacks gravitas (it does), but that it doesn't replace gravitas with anything else. I wouldn't say exactly that The Counterfeiters has no reason to exist, but it doesn't exactly go out of its way to give the viewer a reason to watch.