Holocaust films often present concentration camp inmates as if they were only victims, not complex characters with their own unique stories and choices. But Stefan Ruzowitzky's riveting tale about two very different prisoners struggling to find their own answer to an impossible moral dilemma presents us with protagonists who cannot be reduced to caricatures.
Salomon "Sally" Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics) is a professional criminal, a hard-bitten and cynical prince of counterfeiters who professes to care only about himself. Adolf Burger (August Diehl), on the other hand, is an idealistic anti-fascist arrested for printing anti-Nazi leaflets, a romantic who dreams of resistance even inside the camps.
Now, after years of brutal treatment, both men find themselves assigned to a privileged work detail tasked with counterfeiting British and American currency. Burger understands that their work may be rescuing the bankrupt Nazi war machine, prolonging the slaughter that goes on in this and other camps, and wants to sabotage the effort. Sally sees that collaborating with his Nazi overseers is the only way to keep himself and the men with whom he works alive another day.
The real monsters in this film, of course, are those committing genocide in the camps. But the film does not let us look away from the moral dilemma facing Sally and Burger, or offer an easy solution to their problem. Nazi savagery has not obliterated their humanity or responsibility, and they must face and address the question of what to do. In the abstract Burger's solution seems correct, but does he really have the right to risk the lives of his neighbors to make a gesture? Sally's concern for the man in the bunk next to him and his loyalty to the neighbors he can see is deeply touching. But does he have no duty to the millions being killed in camps like his?
In the end the genius of the film is that Ruzowitzky will not let Burger, Sally, or us off the hook. Judge not lest ye be judged.