'Counterfeiters' Has Real Shot at Foreign Film Oscar

Bob Mondello reviews one of the foreign films up for an Academy Award at the Oscar ceremony on Sunday. The Counterfeiters is an Austrian drama set in World War II.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

The Academy Awards ceremony is just a day away, and this year, one of the toughest categories to predict is the Best Foreign Language Film. That's because three of the nominees haven't opened in the U.S. yet, and several foreign-language films that have opened, like "The Diving Bell" and "The Butterfly," "La Vie En Rose" and "Persepolis," were barred from competing in the category.

But critic Bob Mondello says the Austrian nominee, which just opened this weekend, could have a decent shot. It's a World War II drama called "The Counterfeiters."

Mr. BOB MONDELLO (Film Critic): In 1936, forger Salomon Sorowitsch is known to Berlin's Jewish underground as a criminal who can make undetectable fake passports. He's also known to the head of the Nazi's counterfeit squad, who shows up one night to arrest him.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Counterfeiters")

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) (Speaking foreign language).

Mr. MONDELLO: There on the desk is a surprise: the master forger's latest project, the dollar.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Counterfeiters")

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) The dollar.

Mr. MONDELLO: An ambitious forgery that gets sidelined as Sorowitsch is sent to Austria's Mauthausen concentration camp, where his ability to paint propaganda murals and portraits of the guards keeps him alive for several years - barely.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Counterfeiters")

(Soundbite of gunshot)

(Soundbite of dog yelping)

Mr. MONDELLO: Then one day, he's summoned by a Nazi officer he recognizes, the head of the counterfeit squad that arrested him. The Nazis have come up with a plot to destabilize the U.S. and British economies by flooding them with fake currency on a massive scale. To do that, they need to make persuasive fake currency, and in a death-camp compound separated from the rest of the camp, where music plays the inmates wear civilian clothes, Sorowitsch is introduced not to fellow forgers but to artists, printers, paper makers and bankers.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Counterfeiters")

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As character) (Speaking foreign language).

Unidentified Man #3 (Actor): (As character) Solomon Sorowitsch.

Mr. MONDELLO: Their assignment: To make perfect dollars and pound notes or die. And with music blaring in the background to drown out the screams of the prisoners outside, they set to work.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Counterfeiters")

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #4 (Singer): (Singing) (Speaking foreign language).

Mr. MONDELLO: Many Holocaust dramas have hinged on the moral compromises and guilt felt by survivors, but the story being told by Austrian filmmaker Stefan Ruzowitzky, a fictionalized version of real events, isn't about just any Jew surviving the Holocaust.

It's about a shyster, a criminal who is suddenly responsible for the lives of honest men, whose passion for forgery gets allied with far darker ends than his own and whose code of honor among thieves gets pitted against the consciences of a fiercely moral communist who sabotages their efforts, knowing that what keeps them alive could doom countless others.

"The Counterfeiters" is based on a memoir written by that communist, and since it centers on a character he clearly doesn't like, it's a tricky film to navigate emotionally. The director lines up stereotypes and moral dilemmas too neatly, almost as if the film, if it's going to work, needs to be as insulated from the real world as the characters are from death camp horrors.

Of course, the horrors filter through, and the dilemmas remain daunting.

I'm Bob Mondello.

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'The Counterfeiters'

Karl Markovics as Salomon Sorowitsch in 'The Counterfeiters.' i i

hide captionSalomon Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics) is a Jew in a concentration camp, aiding the Third Reich in a massive counterfeit operation.

Jat Jurgen Olczyk/Sony Pictures Classics
Karl Markovics as Salomon Sorowitsch in 'The Counterfeiters.'

Salomon Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics) is a Jew in a concentration camp, aiding the Third Reich in a massive counterfeit operation.

Jat Jurgen Olczyk/Sony Pictures Classics
  • Director: Stefan Ruzowitzky
  • Genre: War Drama
  • Running Time: 98 minutes
Karl Markovics and Devid Striesow in 'The Counterfeiters.' i i

hide captionSalomon Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics, left) and Friedrich Herzog (Devid Striesow) collaborate on a counterfeit money scheme.

Jat Jurgen Olczyk/Sony Pictures Classics
Karl Markovics and Devid Striesow in 'The Counterfeiters.'

Salomon Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics, left) and Friedrich Herzog (Devid Striesow) collaborate on a counterfeit money scheme.

Jat Jurgen Olczyk/Sony Pictures Classics

A Nazi plot to destabilize the U.S. and British economies through massive circulation of fake currency rests on the talents of Jewish master-forger Salomon Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics) in this flawed by intriguing drama.

We meet Salomon in Monte Carlo shortly after the war, where he seems hell-bent on losing every banknote in a suitcase packed full to bursting. The film then flashes back to 1936, to find him celebrated in the Jewish community for his fake passports — and yet unable to escape being rounded up, during a sweep of Berlin, for being both a Jew and a habitual criminal.

Salomon ends up in Austria's Mauthausen concentration camp, where his skills making portraits and propaganda murals get him isolated from the general population along with a few printers, artists and paper-makers who are ordered to create perfect dollars and pound notes — or die.

The moral dilemma, as pointed out by a communist printer who begins sabotaging the work, is that if they fail they'll all be killed, but if they succeed, their work will result in the deaths of countless others. Director Stefan Ruzowitzky details how the men — the story has been fictionalized, but it's essentially true — found a middle way, and if his approach is low-key and conventional to a fault, it nonetheless earned the film an Oscar nomination.

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